ANN ARBOR—Rama Mwenesi was a freshman at the University of Michigan when he came up with an idea of designing, building and deploying low-cost, solar-powered internet systems to various off-the-grid communities in Africa.
The much-needed mentorship, funding and encouragement for the project came from the African Studies Center at U-M’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. The project has thrived in the last eight years and is now a student-run startup with custom internet systems in the African countries of Kenya, Zambia and Sierra Leone, as well as in Brazil in South America.
Mwenesi, who grew up in Kenya, credits the success of the project to the center that encouraged him to give back and get involved in initiatives impacting Africa. “ASC gave me a platform and empowered me to do this,” said Mwenesi, who is finishing his Ph.D. in Health Infrastructures and Learning Systems at Michigan Medicine. Mwenesi is one of many U-M students who have benefited from the African Studies Center (ASC), which celebrated its 10th anniversary on 15-17 March 2018 with a symposium entitled “ASC: The First Decade and Beyond.”
The three-day symposium featured keynotes from U-M President Mark Schlissel, President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman (who founded the ASC in 2008), U-M alumnus Michael Sudarkasa (BA ‘85), and President Emeritus Emmet Dennis of the University of Liberia.
A panel of U-M alumni living in Ghana and South Africa, and a presidential panel featuring six current and former U.S. and African university presidents: three from U-M (Schlissel, Coleman, and President Emeritus James Duderstadt) and three from Africa (Dennis, President Ophelia Weeks from the University of Liberia, and Rector Uphie Chinje Melo from the University of Ngaoundéré, Cameroon) were some of the highlights of the three-day symposium.
William Cosby (MBA’98) who participated in the alumni panel, credited his U-M education to work and live in South Africa: “I was greatly inspired by our business school dean, Joseph White’s speech to my incoming class about ‘becoming a global citizen’.”
U-M President Mark Schlissel said the center unites top faculty and students from around the world and provides an opportunity for cultivating outstanding research. “Our African Studies Center helps us advance our most cherished values as an international community of scholars,” he said. “I am proud to celebrate the center’s impressive decade of academic excellence, cultural understanding and intellectual impact.” Schlissel also announced a renewal of support from Office of the President for U-M African Presidential Scholars (UMAPS) Program for an additional five-year period. UMAPS brings early-career African faculty to Ann Arbor for 4-6 month research residencies and pairs them with U-M faculty. In the last decade, 135 faculty from 10 African countries have benefited from the program.
“In supporting these faculty as they engage in research, finish a paper or publish a book, we are in turn helping their students who benefit from a better prepared professor. We want to support these scholars so they can excel – at home, where they are most needed,” said Coleman about the UMAPS program during her keynote address. “Faculty here who serve as mentors gain so much from new collaborations and partnerships with African colleagues, and that new knowledge benefits our students.”
Along with UMAPS, the center has also launched other interdisciplinary initiatives like the African Heritage and Humanities Initiative, African Social Research Initiative, STEM-Africa, Ethiopia-Michigan Collaborative Consortium and, recently, the African Perspectives book series with U-M Press, which aims to unsettle conventional understandings of the continent.
“Faculty from both of our continents are working together to advance democracy, the arts, public health, STEM education, environmental sustainability, and more,” Schlissel said. “Our intellectual investments in each other are poised for an even greater decade ahead.”
U-M’s engagement with African studies began in 1928 when the first doctoral dissertation on Africa was granted, says ASC director Kelly Askew, professor of anthropology and Afroamerican and African studies. “In the last decade since its formation, the center has provided strategic guidance and coordination of Africa-related education, research and training activities on campus, helping faculty and students engage and collaborate with African partners,” she said.
James Holloway, vice provost for global engagement and interdisciplinary academic affairs, says these programs are a long-term investment in Africa that will pay off for decades to come. “I would love to see a doubling of the number of U-M students who do work in Africa over the next five years, leveraging this network,” he said.
The center is key when it comes to building relationships across the university.
U-M engineering student Melinda Kothbauer is the global engagement director at the U-M Society of Women Engineers. With ASC’s help, she connected with the Liberia Society of Women Engineers to facilitate a two-week leadership camp for undergraduate female engineering students on professional, academic and student organization development.
“I have been traveling to Liberia every year for the past three years as part of this ongoing partnership,” she said. “It has been a remarkable experience to be able to collaborate with my peers in another country and culture.” Kothbauer will take two U-M faculty members to the workshop this year.
“Understanding the world we serve is essential to our teaching, research and impact. That is why the African Studies Center matters,” concluded Coleman.
Updated from original article, U-M African Studies Center: Celebrating a decade of academic excellence, cultural understanding, Global Michigan, 4/18/18.