Interviews with African Alumni Reveal Key Lessons

UC Berkeley and partner university researchers presented the preliminary results of their two year research project, Career and Life Trajectories of African Alumni of International Universities, at the Comparative and International Education Society annual conference in Washington DC (March 8 – 13).  The multi-university retrospective tracer study is supported by The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program , which is funding 113 comprehensive scholarships for sub-Saharan African youth (undergraduates and MA/MSc) to attend UC Berkeley between 2012 and 2020.

The goal of the mixed methods study is to learn about the post-graduation career and life choices of African alumni, and their diverse connections and contributions to their countries of origin (African Alumni Berkeley).

A further goal is to reconnect African alumni with their alma mater institutions and with each other for social and professional networking. The project has also created the welcome opportunity for current African students to learn from their “predecessors” on how best to utilize their time at Berkeley to gain the exposure, skills and relationships that will last throughout their life and professional career. They are already connecting for mentoring and summer internships.

For example, James Tayali, a public health major and MCF Scholar from Malawi, will be interning this summer with Cal alum, Daniel Kwaro (MPH 2010), Director of Kenya Medical Research Institute, Kisumu, Kenya. Thabani Nyoni, a first year graduate student in Social Welfare, and MCF Scholar from Zimbabwe, will be interning with Cal alum, Dean Peacock (BA 1992), Director of SONKE, a gender justice non-profit organization in Cape Town, South Africa.

Researchers Robin Marsh & Sidee Dlamini with Kenyan SPH alumni in Kisumu.

In January 2015, African Alumni Project researchers Dr. Robin Marsh, graduate student and MCF Scholar, Sidee Dlamini, and Dr. Amy Jamison (Michigan State University) made a historic trip to sub-Saharan Africa to conduct in-depth interviews with alumni from Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Rwanda. In all, 33 Cal alums were interviewed spanning fifty years since graduation. Each interview revealed fascinating stories of how and why they came to study at Berkeley, their most memorable academic and social experiences at Cal, challenges they faced, and what have been the main impacts on their lives and careers in Africa.

A recurring theme is the exposure to “horizontal” relationships with professors at Berkeley. Another is the high value given to exposure to students from all over the world, a unique opportunity for Africans to become inter-culturally familiar and competent:

“I remember the very first time I went to class and I saw students engaging with the professor and for me that was just unbelievable. The second thing for me was at Berkeley, and especially at the Richmond Field Station [Pavement Research Center], you had people from Ukraine, Libya, France, Iraq, Sri Lanka, you name it.  Look, it was just the best environment for somebody who was thirsty for knowledge, engaging with the right people, it was fantastic.”  
– Philip Hendricks, Manager, AURECON Engineering, South Africa

In terms of advice for current African scholars at Cal, alums universally urged them to forge strong research and education collaborations with Berkeley faculty and fellow students. These connections have provided a “life line” of support during difficult times politically and professionally in Africa, and provide Cal academics with outstanding collaborators for their Africa-based research projects.

While in Uganda, project researchers discovered that the Prime Minister is a UC Berkeley graduate, having earned an MPH in Child and Maternal Health in the late 1970s while in exile from the Idi Amin regime. He hopes current scholars will return home to advance development in Uganda:

I do believe that most Ugandans [who study outside the country] want to come back home.  At least that was my desire then, and I know it to be the desire of very many people.  The [MasterCard Foundation Scholars] Program supports the best and most talented young men and women, so that they can come back and help us accelerate the development of Uganda … that’s the way to build a meaningful and better future, for our people, and for our country.”
– PM Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, Uganda

At the end of 2014, the study administered a detailed web-based survey to nearly 500 African Cal alumni, (more than 1,000 including all partners) with a response rate of 20%. Survey analysis will be conducted in collaboration with Michigan State University, EARTH University and Canadian partners McGill University, University of Toronto, and Simon Fraser University. Partners will continue to conduct in-depth interviews with their respective alumni in Africa and in the African Diaspora through spring and summer 2015, and expect to generate mixed methods results and recommendations for The MasterCard Foundation and other scholarship programs by the end of the year.


Daniel Mouen-Makoua (Cameroon) in Yola, Adamawa State, Nigeria, March 2015 (UC Berkeley Masters CEE 1986).

For another story on  the historic trip: Click here!