U-M African Studies Center: Celebrating a decade of academic excellence, cultural understanding
Written by Mandira Banerjee
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, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
U-M President Mark Schlissel says 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.”
At a symposium celebrating the first decade of ASC and beyond, President Mark Schlissel announced that the Office of the President is renewing its support of the unique programs launched by ASC – U-M African Presidential Scholars Program. UMAPS brings an early-career African faculty for 4-6 month research residencies in Ann Arbor and pairs them with U-M faculty. About 135 faculty from 10 African countries have benefited from the program.
“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.”
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.
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.
“One of the features that gives America’s research universities their strength is a commitment to international collaborations,” said Mary Sue Coleman, president of Association of American Universities and president of U-M when the center was formed.
“Understanding the world we serve is essential to our teaching, research and impact. That is why the African Studies Center matters, and why I am pleased to help celebrate its 10th anniversary.”