The 2018-19 cohort of University of Michigan African Presidential Scholars (UMAPS), hosted on the U-M campus by the African Studies Center (ASC), was “the most productive group yet in terms of written work,” says Chris Feak, who has led the UMAPS Writing Workshop sessions since the inception of the UMAPS program in 2009. This written output includes two completed book manuscripts, two finished dissertation manuscripts, a finished dissertation proposal, and at least seven articles either published or submitted. Other members of the 2018-19 UMAPS cohort used their four-to-six months residencies on campus write and submit grant applications, some of which have already led to grants being awarded (including a grant, featuring the collaboration of two UMAPS fellows as well as U-M faculty).
In reflecting on their experiences with the UMAPS program, many of the scholars remarked on how productive they had been in their research and writing. Lemlem Beza Demisse (Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia) was able to write and submit three articles as well as a grant application, in addition to finishing the coursework for her PhD. She notes that in her academic career so far, she has never been as productive as during the six months of her UMAPS residency.
Back home in Ethiopia, I have not had time off dedicated for academic development, such as the time to spend reading and writing. I was always challenged with two or more competing commitments. At U-M, I was able to dedicate time to read and write which I never did for the last eight years of my work experience.
Patrick Cobbinah (KNUST, Ghana), whose UMAPS residency was dedicated to finishing The Geography of Climate Change Adaptation in Urban Ghana (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) also noted his increased productivity while in Ann Arbor. He attributes this productivity to the core aspects of the UMAPS program: dedicated time for one’s research, full access to campus research materials and facilities, being paired with a faculty member with similar research interests, and engaging with U-M’s vibrant scholarly community of international researchers, faculty, postdocs, students, and staff. Cobbinah characterizes this combination as
the paradox of concentrating on one’s research project and at the same time socially engaging others through colloquiums and social gathering chats. The genuine willingness of some mentors—irrespective of their fields of interest—to know and share their experiences on scholars’ projects was amazing; the encouragement and mutual support I received from mentor and other scholars was indescribable.
Working together closely with a U-M faculty member, who for some UMAPS fellows serves more as a mentor and for others more as a colleague, is an indispensable aspect of the UMAPS program, and one that is highly valued by UMAPS fellows. Adelaide Nieguitsila (Université des Sciences et Techniques de Masuku, Gabon), who spent her time at U-M working closely with the members of Lutgarde Raskin’s research lab, which focuses on a variety of biological water and wastewater treatment processes. Nieguitsila benefitted much from the group meetings and calls Raskin’s mentorship “truly exceptional.” Similarly, Kholekile Malindi (Stellenbosch University, South Africa), who deems UMAPS “by far one of the best fellowship programs on offer for African scholars,” underlined the benefit of working with faculty members who are leaders in their area of research. He notes, “I had the distinguished pleasure and honor of receiving research mentorship from Prof. David Lam, in the form of frequent discussions and engagements about my research, which were undoubtedly the highlight of my time as a UMAPS fellow.” Since returning to South Africa after his UMAPS residency, Malindi has successfully defended his dissertation on “Labor Market Determinants of Income Dynamics for a Highly Unequal Society: The South African Case.”
A central tenet of the UMAPS program since its inception has been a belief that bringing faculty from African universities to campus not only contributes to the career development of individual scholars, but also benefits their home institutions in Africa as well as—and maybe most of all—U-M. U-M President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman succinctly explained this as follows in her keynote address at ASC’s 10th Anniversary Symposium. “Faculty here who serve as mentors gain so much from new collaborations and partnerships with African colleagues, and that new knowledge benefits our students.” In addition, all UMAPS fellows present their research projects to the campus community at least once, as part of the UMAPS colloquium series, and many fellows also give talks as part of departmental speaker series or in lab meetings, as guest speakers in classes, and as participants at conferences.
The final UMAPS colloquium provided a telling example of how UMAPS fellows enrich the intellectual life at U-M, when a visiting post-doc from Columbia, who worked in the same Public Health department where Lemlem Beza Demisse was based, noted how much her experience at the University of Michigan had been enriched by her encounter with Demisse’s work. What this post-doc appreciated about U-M’s scholarly community is that it is a global one, and that it provides for new connections, including South-South exchanges between emerging scholars.
UMAPS fellows note how the intellectual community and sociability within the cohort helped all of them thrive. For Faida Zacharia (University of Dodoma, Tanzania), the goal of her UMAPS residency was to develop a PhD proposal to continue her research on access to energy and water resources for smallholder farmers in Tanzania. She is grateful for the support of her fellow UMAPS scholars, who reviewed her work and provided new insights, noting that “having a support network makes me more comfortable to start my research.” Zerihun Birehanu (Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia) similarly remarked on his fellow scholars being central to the success of his UMAPS experience: “I came to know young African intellectuals from every corner of the continent which I have used as means to broaden my understanding of my continent and broaden my network of friends in the African academy.”
The 11th UMAPS cohort consisted of 14 faculty representing universities in eight different African countries (Ghana, South Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria, Gabon, and Tanzania). Their return home in late February made these exceptional scholars part of the growing UMAPS alumni network, which now comprises 149 former UMAPS fellows who continue to contribute to international scholarly conversations, provide research and other leadership at their home institutions, and enrich U-M through our ongoing relationships.