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Trupin '13: An African student's suggestions

I feel strongly that the African community at Brown could benefit from increased cohesion. As I argued in my final column of last semester ("The African Student's Burden," April 18), African students in higher education are generally subject to certain expectations regarding their ability to contribute to the futures of their respective countries. In light of many African countries' continued political instability and economic, environmental and social challenges, students are expected to apply all opportunities for learning to the development of knowledge and skills pertinent to these issues.

The underlying assumption that African students studying abroad may be influential figures at home is clearly based in reality. Consider the extent to which foreign-educated people continue to hold positions of power in much of Africa. Though the number of western-educated African leaders includes such despots as Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Taylor, one could list many more African graduates of non-African universities who are known for their positive contributions, from literature and the arts to civil service and political leadership.

These expectations make sense. External actors are often criticized for the consequences of their approaches to development, such as non-governmental organizations whose activities can obstruct the long-term development of public sector services. Having the many Africans who graduate from institutions abroad return with applicable skills to their countries is one of the most obvious steps towards increasing the capacity of African civil societies and government sectors.

To a large extent, these expectations are matched by the priorities of African students studying at places like Brown. Most of the African students I know at Brown are considering or pursuing concentrations in engineering, economics or international relations — areas that probably suit President Simmons' prescription of "(upgrading) their knowledge of science and technology." What is missing is the support and access to resources that could exist and benefit these individuals.

From the "Violent Cities" conference that was held at Brown last April to our annual Chinua Achebe colloquia, events highly relevant to the continent abound on Brown's campus. The graduate school has drawn an inspiring handful of up-and-coming African scholars. Brown's faculty includes an illustrious contingent of Africans and scholars of Africa, including a department devoted to the study of the continent and its diaspora, and visiting African scholars every semester.

But the Chinua Achebe colloquia have been almost devoid of undergraduate students of any nationality. African graduate students with whom I have communicated lament the lack of ties between themselves and undergraduate students. The single time I met Dul Johnson, a Nigerian documentary filmmaker and fiction writer who was a visiting scholar at Brown last semester, the first thing he had to say was about how, on the eve of his departure, he was for the first time meeting the community of African undergraduates. How can African students at Brown get the most out of their education — and then save the world — if, as things are now, the African community is so fragmented?

In this column, my intent is not to lay blame on a single party. The strength of a community comes from the commitment and energy of those who participate in it. For a stronger African community to emerge at Brown, there are roles that must be played by administrators, program planners, faculty and students.

In view of the relative underrepresentation of African students when compared with the matriculation of students of other foreign nationalities, administrators can certainly contribute to the process by following the Advancing Africa Scholarship Fund with continued opportunities for African students to attend Brown. The planners of this year's round of conferences, colloquia and other events pertaining to the African continent could choose to reach out more effectively to the rest of the African community. And — an essential ingredient of the process — undergraduates can continue to support each other through strong friendships and participation in organizations such as the African Students Association. In the time-honored tradition of comparing Brown to a certain peer institution of ours, I must add that the highly active undergraduate Harvard African Students Association is accompanied by a similar organization among graduate students at Harvard Law School, in addition to an alumni association. Brown could be a better place for African students and others seeking to understand and work on issues relevant to various African peoples, but there must be commitment and vision to achieve that.

Ian Trupin '13 is a commerce,organizations and entrepreneurship concentrator.



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