Omowumi Banjo-Ogunleye first came to the University of Michigan from Nigeria as a Yoruba instructor and cultural exchange ambassador through the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FTLA) Program. Since 2020, she has enriched the instruction in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS) Yoruba language courses with engaging lessons about her home country’s vibrant cultural heritage–everything from inviting students to her home to sample traditional cuisine, to showcasing local Yoruba hairstyles and attire, to discussing how attitudes about morality and social media have influenced changes to West African fashion over time.

This fall, Banjo-Ogunleye will begin her next chapter at U-M in the Masters in International and Regional Studies (MIRS) African studies specialization program, examining a different side of Nigerian culture as the inaugural Heleniak-Carstarphen Graduate Student Scholar. Her research will focus on the impact of culture and religion on gender-based violence and victimhood in West Africa. In Nigeria’s patriarchal society, victims of domestic abuse–even prominent ones like popular gospel singer Osinachi Nwachukwu, who was allegedly killed recently by her abusive husband–are not emboldened to speak out or leave their abusers.

Pursuing graduate studies at a leading American research university like U-M will provide Banjo-Ogunleye with numerous opportunities. She marvels at the fact that scholars not only have such great access to first-class university library facilities but can request research texts be delivered to their doorsteps. She has also been impressed by the accessibility and approachability of professors, and their willingness to engage in discussion, share ideas, and explore different theories with students. A major factor in her decision to study global gender and health issues in the MIRS program was the interdisciplinary focus and multicultural diversity of its faculty and researchers.

Meria Carstarphen and David Heleniak

These opportunities are precisely what David Heleniak and Meria Carstarphen envisioned when they established the Heleniak-Carstarphen Graduate Student Scholars Fund. The fund provides a year of support through the African Studies Center (ASC) to a master’s student who earned their undergraduate degree from a university in Africa. The couple’s gift is the largest to-date for the African Studies Center and includes a Ph.D. application fund to aid in recruiting African students to U-M Ph.D. programs. 

Heleniak is a member of ASC’s advisory board. His interest in supporting students from Africa stems from his career in global business development and professional connections to the continent. Carstarphen has dedicated her career to strengthening communities through education, and has served as the superintendent of schools for several large urban districts, including Atlanta and St. Paul; she recently joined analytics firm Gallup as the first Senior Scientist to focus on education. The couple made the gift to bolster ASC’s efforts to address the low number of students from the African continent on the University of Michigan campus.

“I am delighted and grateful to know that I am the first recipient of the Heleniak-Carstarphen Graduate Student Scholars fund,” said Banjo-Ogunleye, a graduate of the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, where she studied the English language. “This award has availed me of the opportunity to more easily pursue my graduate program in the United States, where you have access to state-of-the-art facilities that offer more advanced techniques of textual and cultural analysis in conducting research, and are given the liberty to express yourself.”