Searching for ‘the Berkeley spark’ in Sub-Saharan Africa

At Zengeza 1 High School in Zimbabwe, students have long called two of their buildings the Harvard Campus. They named them in hopes that, at least every other year, someone from their impoverished but proud school of 2,500 students, all of them from families earning less than $300 a year, would be admitted to the Ivy League.

But by the time UC Berkeley admission officer Lin Larson visited the high school last semester as part of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions’ first-ever visit to Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the buildings had a new name – the Berkeley Campus.

Desks at Likuni Girls School

Desks at Likuni Girls School, Lilongwe, Malawai, as classrooms are readied for a new school year. (Lin Larson photo)

“They didn’t know UC Berkeley was the No. 1 public university, and knew California mainly for Disneyland and Hollywood,” said Larson, a senior international specialist. “I was there to get the word out about Berkeley, our admissions process, and the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program. And I wasn’t about to let them get away with calling both buildings Harvard.”

Larson was able to travel to 22 of Sub-Saharan Africa’s top high schools because of funding from The MasterCard Foundation, which last year provided UC Berkeley and several other schools worldwide with $500 million in scholarships for disadvantaged, yet talented African students. Four undergraduate and three graduate students are attending UC Berkeley for the first time this year, at no cost, as MasterCard Foundation Scholars.

By the time Larson left Zimbabwe, the 700 university-bound students at Zengeza 1 High School – who by then were familiar with Berkeley’s academic programs, faculty accomplishments, major discoveries, student engagement, even the Campanile and Oski – had taped a Berkeley poster and pennant on one of the two buildings they use for classes, signaling the renaming.

And Larson’s trip to the nearly two dozen high schools, made possible by recommendations from Education USA, an arm of the U.S. Department of State, helped with the selection of 11 more students who last week were offered 2013-14 undergraduate admission to UC Berkeley as MasterCard Scholars. In addition, eight new MasterCard Foundation Scholars have been invited to join the campus next fall as graduate students.

“These are exceptional kids; they are an amazing inspiration,” said Larson of the teenagers she met in Ghana, Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe. “Their schools lack basic educational tools such as chalk, computers, labs, modern textbooks and library resources. Many of them have no shoes, and walk 45 minutes to an hour to school every day. Their weekly menu in the school cafeteria is primarily water, white bread and yams. But they work very hard with very, very little. Their entire dream and goal is a quality education.”

The UC Berkeley student profile is very alive in these schools, said Larson. Many of the students are academically prepared, volunteer in their communities to improve the quality of life, display leadership ability and are unafraid to question the status quo.

“In undergraduate admissions, we call it ‘the Berkeley spark,’ said Larson. “It is a spark that we sense from a student’s application, or when we meet students, and we just know this is the kind of student that we’d like to see on our campus.”

The MasterCard Foundation scholarships also require that the scholars demonstrate a “give-back ethos,” a desire to return to their home countries after graduation to make life better. It’s a requirement that “goes so well with Berkeley’s mission,” said Larson.

With MasterCard Foundation grant funding for Larson’s travel to Sub-Saharan Africa last fall, Berkeley has seen a healthy jump in the number of applicants from that part of the world, from 114 undergraduates for the 2012-13 school year, for example, to 169 for next year. For 2012-13, no undergraduate applications were received from Zimbabwe. But 10 students applied for entrance next fall. In Malawi, the number of undergraduate applications went from one to seven. Ghana’s applications have gone up by 50 percent, and South Africa’s also rose substantially.

“This is a very welcome outcome for the campus,” said Martha Saavedra, interim and associate director of the UC Berkeley Center for African Studies, where the Scholars Program is being housed. “Increasing the number and diversity of African students at Berkeley will strengthen our connections and engagements with this dynamic continent, and as a result enrich our learning and research environment.”

Larson , who also will travel to Indonesia in May on behalf of Undergraduate Admissions and last year went to India and the Philippines, plans to return to Sub-Saharan Africa next fall, this time traveling with her counterparts from the five other U.S. universities that are partners in The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program. On her itinerary is a revisit to Zengeza 1 High School, including the Berkeley Campus.

Said Larson, “I told the students, ‘I’m going to check to see if the Berkeley sign’s still there, I’m totally going to check!’”


“The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program brings Sub-Saharan African students to UC Berkeley” (UC Berkeley news release)