Study chronicles experiences of campus African alumni

Robin Marsh/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, or ISSI, has concluded the data-collecting portion of a worldwide study of six universities to chronicle the experiences of African alumni.

The project, which spanned two years at schools in the United States, Canada and Central America, was initiated to document the life and career trajectories of hundreds of sub-Saharan African scholars, said campus research lead Robin Marsh. The research received funding from the MasterCard Foundation, which runs a program that provides scholarships for African students on campus.

According to MasterCard Foundation spokesperson Laurie Armstrong, the foundation decided to support the African Alumni Project “in order to better understand and document the experiences of African students who were past recipients of other scholarship programs.”

So far, the UC Berkeley ISSI team has completed, transcribed and coded 60 interviews with African alumni and has transitioned to the analysis stage. The team is now working on understanding the push-and-pull factors behind alumni’s “nonlinear trajectories,” according to Marsh. Through interviews, the team discovered that many alumni did not return home immediately after school, but often stayed in the country to pursue careers because of social unrest, economic hardships or other factors in their country of origin. Many of them later returned home and took up leadership roles.

The ISSI is also working closely with Amy Jamison, principal investigator from Michigan State University, one of the six universities involved in the study.

“It’s been quite interesting to see the breadth of expertise that these alumni have,” Jamison said. “They’re managers of NGOs, founders of schools and government leaders.”

Marsh and her team found that what the alumni shared, however, was a sense of “exposure” they gained from their time on campus.

“It’s not a homogenous environment here, it’s very unexpected,” Marsh said. “This does not fit the image of the United States that they had.”

Apart from the interviews they conducted with alumni, researchers gathered data through a lengthy alumni survey. Once survey results are aggregated from all six universities, researchers will have 300 responses to analyze. According to Rami Arafah, graduate student and campus research team member, this survey will allow the team to “look at these experiences from a statistical lens.”

Moving forward, Marsh hopes to eventually turn these experiences into two books: an academic book to encapsulate her team’s research and a book of alumni profiles that could be an “inspiration for current African scholars who, at age 18 or 19, can’t necessarily imagine how a Berkeley degree is going to serve them.”

“Everybody really remembers very positive influences from their time at UC Berkeley, however challenging it may have been at some point, academically or socially,” Marsh said. “They’ve taken away a very positive impact. We didn’t enter the project knowing that.”

Contact Harini Shyamsundar at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @hshyamsundar.