Scholarships strengthen intercontinental ties

Scholarships strengthen intercontinental ties

September 26, 2014

The strong ties established decades ago between Michigan State University, the continent of Africa and the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics (AFRE) are being reinforced with two recent scholarship programs: the MasterCard Foundation (MCF) Scholars is exclusively for Africans, and the Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development (BHEARD) Program is for academics from around the developing world.

AFRE has welcomed two African students who are part of the MasterCard Foundation Scholars program. Launched in 2012 by the independent MasterCard Foundation, the MCF Scholars program provides all-expenses-paid scholarships to academically gifted African undergraduate or master’s degree students. Eligible students must come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and plan on returning to their home countries to work in their chosen fields, such as agriculture, government or engineering. Other participating universities are Duke, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley.

Thelma Namonje was a member of the inaugural class of MCF Scholars at MSU.  In July, she defended her master’s thesis on how late fertilizer delivery affects smallholder maize production in Zambia.  She has headed home to Zambia to start a new job as a research associate at the Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute.

She said that gaining the opportunity to study in the United States was “a dream come true. I look at it as a steppingstone to what I want to achieve in life.”  Namonje’s research interests include agricultural policy research focusing specifically on farm input subsidy programs and maize marketing in Zambia.

Roland Ofori of Ghana, AFRE’s second MCF Scholar, is about to begin the second year of his master’s degree program. When he returns home, he will continue to work for the Ministry of Finance.

Achieving an advanced degree from MSU “will go a long way to reshape my view on Africa’s development, and it will equip me with the requisite knowledge and skills needed to be an economist,” Ofori wrote in an email from Ghana, where he was spending the summer. “This will enable me to contribute more effectively to Ghana’s efforts at achieving accelerated development.”

The Borlaug Higher Education fellowship – named after Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug – began as a project of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which selected MSU to implement the program. Currently one AFRE student from Bangladesh is working toward his Ph.D. in agricultural economics. The aim of this scholarship is to increase the number of agricultural scientists in the developing world while strengthening their home universities, where they will return to support the training of more agricultural researchers at the master’s and doctoral levels. The first participating countries were Ghana, Uganda, Mozambique, Bangladesh and Cambodia. This year, it will expand to include Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Malawi and South Sudan. All of these countries participate in USAID’s Feed the Future initiative. 

“During the scholarship interviews, we tell the students that this scholarship is not for them as individuals,” said AFRE’s Anne Schneller. “It’s really for the strengthening of the agricultural research capacity of the home institution.” Schneller is a co-director of BHEARD, along with AFRE’s Eric Crawford and Frederik Derksen from Food Science, Health and Nutrition.

For Nahid Sattar, AFRE’s first BHEARD scholar, it has been a long-cherished dream to earn his Ph.D. from an American university. After three years of coursework in AFRE at MSU, Sattar will return to his home institution – Bangladesh Agricultural University – where he will begin his research. (BHEARD requires that research must be conducted in the scholar’s home country and must focus on an issue related to agricultural development.)  He said he hopes to study the transformation of postharvest practices in Bangladesh with AFRE professor Tom Reardon as his adviser.

 This is Sattar’s first time in the United States, although he’s no stranger to foreign study, having received his master’s degree from the University of East Anglia in England. The academic rigor of a Ph.D. program at an American university is a challenge, but one that he’s meeting head-on, he said.

“For me it’s a great academic opportunity and a challenge to meet these standards. If I can get through, it will take me to a different level,” said Sattar, who works as a lecturer at Bangladesh Agricultural University. “A lot of agriculture students from Bangladesh don’t come to the U.S., and it would have been unlikely for me to be here without BHEARD.”

 “Of course, the scholars will go back with technical skills, but we also want them to be leaders at their institutions and maintain research projects with their U.S. professors,” Schneller said, adding that BHEARD also encourages its students to take advantage of many opportunities for leadership training on their U.S. campuses.

All three scholars said they are deeply impressed by the level of education attained by their professors and pleasantly surprised by how accessible the professors are to their students.  In addition to class and research work, Ofori wrote that he likes the calm environment of life on an American university campus, and Sattar said that he has enjoyed learning about American football.

For Michigan State, becoming involved in these two scholarship programs was a natural, given its history on the African continent, which dates back to the 1960s and the days of MSU president John Hannah, who became administrator of USAID after leaving Michigan State in 1969.

“MSU is an excellent place to study for those interested in Africa, not only in the field of agriculture but because of MSU’s long-standing number one position in many fields of study related to Africa,” Schneller said. 

It was that expertise that led USAID to select Michigan State as the institution to administer the BHEARD program. Schneller noted that MSU has had the largest number of MasterCard Foundation Scholars of any participating university -- 33 MasterCard Scholars since 2012 -- and another 32 scholars will begin their studies on campus this fall.

-- Christine Meyer

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