Alumni Study: Africans Abroad Still Committed to the Homeland

By Glen Martin

Even those of us who don’t reflexively shriek “Go Bears” every four or five minutes know that UC Berkeley is one of the finest universities on the planet. The proof is in the sheepskin; if a Cal degree isn’t always a fast track to an executive suite or academic renown, it at least constitutes a reliable on-ramp.

But is that the case just for American students? What about the developing world? Berkeley bona fides can be of inestimable value in Silicon Valley, but is the same true for Mombasa?

The African Alumni Project, which originated at UC Berkeley and also involves Michigan State, the University of Toronto, McGill University, Simon Fraser University, and EARTH University in Costa Rica, aims to answer those questions. The project has collected the narratives of hundreds sub-Saharan students who took degrees at one or the other of the six schools over the past 50 years.

“It all got started in 2012,” says Robin Marsh, a researcher for Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Societal Issues. “We had been trying to figure out ways to help smooth the way for students coming to Cal from the rural areas and poor urban neighborhoods of sub-Saharan Africa. It can be tre­men­dously challenging for a student who comes from, say, a pastoral culture near Lake Turkana in Kenya to find himself or herself at Berkeley, studying for an engineering degree. It’s a tremendous investment for these students, their families and their communities, and we need them to succeed.”

To that end, says Marsh, “We realized we should survey other sub-Saharan alums, people who had taken their degrees here, to get their stories. It would not only constitute valuable research data in its own right, but it could also help current and future students adjust more successfully  to life at Cal and other top western universities.”

So Marsh led a grant writing effort, and the Master Card Foundation responded in an exceedingly generous fashion: Cal alone received $30 million. Over the course of two years, Marsh and her team—graduate students Rami Arafah, Sidee Diamini, Tessa Emmer, and Ben Gebre-Medhin and undergraduates David Sung and Shelley Zhang—located about 500 of the 1,000 or so Africans estimated to have taken degrees from Berkeley during the past five decades. They sent out surveys, and then interviewed the respondents, requiring Marsh to visit Africa twice and make multiple trips around the U.S. and Canada. Ultimately, they were able to secure the stories of 113 Cal alumni. Of those, 70 had bachelor’s degrees and 43 had graduate degrees.

One-quarter of them had jobs that centered on African issues, even though they were working abroad, often in exec­u­tive posi­tions.

So what were the findings? A few things stood out. First, graduating from a top U.S. (or Canadian) university seems as much a golden ticket in Africa as in North America. One example: Ruhakana Rugunda, who took his master’s in public health from Cal in 1978, is now the prime minister of Uganda.

But the study also provided some support for the “brain drain” hypothesis—the notion that Africa’s best and brightest don’t return to the continent once they’ve received educations elsewhere.

“We found that half returned immediately or delayed their return for several years,” Marsh says, “but the other half remained in the Diaspora. If they studied in the U.S. they stayed in the U.S., or if they studied in Canada they stayed in Canada, and so on.”

But the researchers also wanted to know how the careers of those who returned to Africa compared with those who did not.

“We were struck that even the Diaspora students remained deeply connected to Africa,” Marsh says. “And it wasn’t just a matter of sending money back home. One-quarter of them had jobs that centered on African issues, even though they were working abroad, often in executive positions.”

Marsh cites the case of a Cal graduate who came from a pastoral tribe in a remote portion of northern Kenya.

“He was able to attend school on missionary scholarships, and he eventually took his Ph.D. from Berkeley in agricultural economics,” Marsh says. “Today, he works for the World Bank. He’s an anomaly in his family—most of them remain nomadic livestock herders. But his work isn’t focused on pastoral tribes, or northern Kenya, or even Kenya as a whole. Instead, he’s working on poverty issues for all of East Africa. His view is continental, not local or regional.”

Fusing an expanded horizons outlook to a bedrock African ethos is typical of sub-Saharan Cal graduates, says Marsh.

“Most of the graduates we’ve surveyed tell us that their years in Berkeley informed the way they now look at the world,” Marsh says. “Berkeley encourages a global perspective on all issues. It’s difficult to come away from here with a narrow, parochial point of view. But at the same time, the commitment [of the graduates] to Africa remains deep.”

That’s evident with people like Thelma Awori, a Liberian who took her master’s degree in adult education and humanistic psychology from Berkeley in 1973. Today, Awori works with various African universities, helping them engage with businesses and academic institutions in the developed world. One of her initiatives has connected Wharton Business School associates with principals of small and intermediate-size businesses in Ghana and Kenya.

“It’s been quite successful,” says Awori. “Wharton is helping people determine better business structures and practices. It’s helping them succeed. We’re planning to expand the program into Uganda and Rwanda.”

But Awori perhaps is most passionate about a project in Uganda and Liberia involving market women. “The people who carry out most of the commerce in Africa’s central markets are women,” observes Awori, “and married or single, most of them are the sole breadwinners for their families.”

Because virtually everyone who lives in Africa goes to the central markets, market women are an economic bulwark of the continent. “But they are also at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder,” Awori says. “They’re made to feel invisible, without value. They have no voice.”

Awori and her colleagues are striving to give such women both strong voices and support, arranging health care and nurseries in the marketplaces, holding classes to teach basic literacy and numeracy, and arranging credit.

“We’re also setting up services for them at national borders, because they often cross from one country to another to sell or buy goods,” Awori says. “The borders can be very problematic—even dangerous—for market women.”

The education Awori received at Berkeley has helped her secure corporate support in the developed world for mid-level African businesses, and the university’s broad, inclusive values have also confirmed her own instincts for social justice.

“It isn’t enough to help just the people who are already doing fairly well at business and want to expand,” says Awori. “We also have to help the people at the very bottom. They do most of the work. They deserve a fair share of the returns, and so do their families.”

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