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The Mastercard Foundation program brings Sub-Saharan African students to UC Berkeley

By Gretchen Kell

For Gift Betty Opar, a young woman from Kenya, it’s the gift of a lifetime, and one she intends to share.

A year ago, Gift only dreamed of attending a top U.S. university. After losing her parents to AIDS, there was no income for tuition. But she had excellent grades, spoke three languages, and was a community volunteer determined to learn skills to help Africans less fortunate than herself.

(UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian)

“At one point in high school,” she said, “I had one pair of shoes, but was thinking, ‘I’m the kid that has something more than someone else walking barefoot.’”

This fall, Gift is a college freshman and one of seven new students from Sub-Saharan Africa attending UC Berkeley at no cost as part of a $500 million education initiative announced today (Wednesday, Sept. 26) by The Mastercard Foundation. Six U.S. universities, including UC Berkeley, were named as new partners in The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program’s global network of educational institutions and non-profits.

The initiative will provide some 15,000 talented, yet financially disadvantaged students who have a “give-back” ethos and live in developing countries with full scholarships and comprehensive support for their high school and college educations. Sub-Saharan Africa — the region that the four undergraduate and three graduate students call home –- is the primary focus of the Scholars Program.

“We are overjoyed at this generous grant and the arrival of our new students from Sub-Saharan Africa,” said Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau. “Their presence will greatly enrich our diverse campus, and they will help us all learn more about the vitality, dynamism and diversity of Africa.”

Prior to this year, the average number of Sub-Saharan Africans enrolled on the campus of some 36,000 students has been about 30 per year. Over the next eight years, the Scholars Program will bring 113 students from that region to UC Berkeley for undergraduate and master’s degrees. The program’s peak year at UC Berkeley will be 2016-17, when 81 Scholars will be enrolled.

Education as a lever for change

UC Berkeley will receive $30 million in funding over the next eight years as part of The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program , which, in the United States, also includes Stanford, Arizona State, Duke and Michigan State universities and Wellesley College. The Mastercard Foundation officials said that participating schools were chosen because they share the foundation’s values, are academically excellent, and provide a nurturing environment and programs relevant to growth sectors in Africa.

Mastercard Scholars

Two of the seven The Mastercard Foundation Scholars at Berkeley, Aisha Kigongo and Gift Betty Opar.

“As the UC’s original land grant university, UC Berkeley has long been committed to education as a lever for change, economic growth and social innovation,” said Birgeneau, adding that “the notion of ‘give-back,’ which is central to the Scholars Program, mirrors well the public service aspect that is central to UC Berkeley’s mission.”

The Scholars Program was highlighted today at a U.N. special session marking the launch of Education First, an initiative seeking to ensure that all children have access to quality, relevant and inclusive education.

“An education does more than liberate people from poverty, it is the foundation of social and economic progress ,” said Reeta Roy, president and CEO of The Mastercard Foundation, at the event.

According to the United Nations, Africa is the second-fastest growing region in the world, and 70 percent of the continent’s population of close to 1 billion is under age 30. Only 36 percent of young people attend high school in Africa, and just 6 percent go to college.

Accessibility to and quality of education are among the barriers to school success in Africa, so The Mastercard Foundation and its partners are uniting in the Scholars Program to help educate Africa’s future leaders and a workforce that can compete in a global economy.

Involvement in the Scholars Program also positions UC Berkeley as a leader in Africa’s future, said Martha Saavedra, associate and interim director of UC Berkeley’s multidisciplinary Center for African Studies , where the Scholars Program is being housed.

In the past 10 years, she said, UC Berkeley has become increasingly engaged in academic research, institutional and technical exchanges, and student experiential learning in Africa and with African partners. “A significant increase in the number of Sub-Saharan African students on campus will critically sharpen these engagements and open new opportunities for collaboration and innovation,” she said.

Campus equips students for work in Africa

One of the new graduate students is Aisha Kigongo who, unlike the majority of teens in Uganda, attended high school, as did her 12 siblings. “Our parents strongly valued education, and my father would always say, ‘Whatever little money I have, I’ll give to you if it’s relative to your education. If it’s not, it’s a luxury.”

After getting her undergraduate degree at Grambling State University in Louisiana, Aisha worked for several years as a software engineer and set her sights on UC Berkeley for a master’s degree from the School of Information, with its interdisciplinary program that spans technology, humanities, sociology and cognitive science. “For me, the program had the right balance between technology and development,” she said. “I found the research interesting and inspiring, and the best people will teach me how to apply my technical skills for the betterment of society.”

Aisha hopes to use her degree to empower African women, especially in rural areas, through technology, with the goal of enhancing their economic opportunities.

Graduate student Narissa Allibhai said UC Berkeley’s Master’s of Development Practice program at the College of Natural Resources was her “dream program” because it had “courses not just about theory, but that would provide me with tools to go forward and have an impact on people.”

Years of riding to school from her middle-class neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya through large slums where she saw youngsters her age begging and playing in sewage fueled her resolve to make life better for the region. “I’ve had these opportunities,” she said, “and there are so many others who have not. Giving back is something I’ve wanted to do my whole life.”

She said she hopes after graduation to contribute to sustainable development and to creating equal opportunities in impoverished Kenyan communities.

Comprehensive support for scholars

By law, international students are not eligible for financial aid from state-funded institutions, and, until now, the only scholarships for students from outside the United States that are based on need as well as merit have been given by the campus’s Berkeley International Office.

Funding from The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program is distinct in that it provides comprehensive support — financial, academic and social -– that will ensure the students “have a positive experience here and success transitioning to employment as future leaders in their home countries,” said Harry LeGrande, UC Berkeley vice chancellor for student affairs.

That support, he said, will include advising, mentoring, on- and off-campus events, the chance to join service-learning opportunities, and access to a network of African alumni and career networks. Those opportunities will include summer internships and research teams in which faculty are working with Sub-Saharan African partners in fields including development economics, public health, renewable energy, water management, sanitation, community forestry, anthropology, and public policy and governance.

In addition to a program-dedicated student advisor in the Center for African Studies, the Berkeley International Office also will offer the Scholars advisors, programs and services to help them navigate campus life. The Scholars Program team will work with UC Berkeley’s Office of International Development to identify long term funding to extend the new program beyond the period of the grant.