$30 Million Grant Brings African Students to College, MDP


An estimated 2.2 million Sub-Saharan Africans under the age of 30 will enter the labor force between 2011 and 2015, yet less than 6 percent of the region’s young people enroll in university. That means the $30 million in educational support recently awarded to the University of California, Berkeley, by The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program is a game-changer for the region. By educating bright yet economically marginalized young Africans who have a “give-back ethos,” the Scholars Program and its partners — Berkeley is one of six American universities joining the foundation’s global network, it was announced Sept. 26 — seek to achieve positive social transformation in Africa. The program will nearly double the number of Sub-Saharan African students at Berkeley over its eight-year term.

Narissa Allibhai and Naa Barkor Pierre are two of seven UC Berkeley students for whom the Scholars Program made all the difference. Both had already earned spots in the inaugural cohort of the Master of Development Practice (MDP), based at the College of Natural Resources, when the news arrived that the Scholars Program would fully support their education. When Allibhai {above) learned of her Berkeley acceptance, “I actually screamed, and then I started crying, and then I called my mom,” she said. The Berkeley MDP, with its interdisciplinary and practical approaches, was her “dream program” and her preference over Yale, where she was also accepted. But the price tag, including international travel and Berkeley’s high cost of living, looked prohibitive.

“I could easily join an NGO and make small differences, but I want to have a big impact on many people.”
—Narissa Allibhai

The Scholars Program, which provides comprehensive financial, academic, and social support, as well as services to facilitate the scholars’ successful postgraduate transitions to jobs or further education, makes it possible for Allibhai to pursue her goal of improving the quality of life for the poorest residents of her hometown of Nairobi, Kenya. Just 15 minutes from her relatively comfortable neighborhood, she said, children play by open sewage flowing through the Kawangware slum. Kibera, the second largest urban slum in Africa, is only 20 minutes away.

“Stuck in traffic on my way home from school every day, I would pass way too many kids begging at the car window,” she said. "It’s crazy because they’re the same age as me, or younger, and I’m getting my education, and they don’t have the same opportunities I do.” Her high school served children of professionals and diplomats, some of them exceptionally wealthy. She recalled a boy who flew to their school in his helicopter. “Look at the difference,” she said. “That just bugged me and I’ve never really been able to get over that I’ve had these opportunities and there are so many other people who have not.”

As an undergraduate at McGill University, Allibhai had diverse interests, from math to music, but during an internship at Aga Khan University in the summer of 2011 she watched experts develop far-reaching policies and projects while she was limited to smaller tasks like helping manage emails and events. She realized that an experiential MDP program like Berkeley’s could help her make a difference. “I could easily join an NGO and make small differences, but I want to have a big impact on many people,” she said.

After two years at a high school near Accra, Ghana’s capital, Pierre (right), switched to the pan-African school that two of her older siblings had attended, run by SOS Children’s Villages, an international humanitarian organization. The SOS environment changed her focus from typical teenage concerns like image and social status to the global development process her country was engaged in. “It was really amazing to go to the graduation and see how everybody had planned to give back,” she said. “Their motto was ‘Knowledge in the service of Africa,’ and that kind of became my motto.” She would go on to study in the United States at Vassar — and now in the Berkeley MDP program — “but I’ll always go home afterwards.”

“Their motto was ‘Knowledge in the service of Africa,’ and that kind of became my motto.”
—Naa Barkor Pierre

When her family moved from the bustling, culturally rich urban center to Gyankama, in Ghana’s less populous Eastern Region, Pierre appreciated road projects that connected areas key to both market sellers and businesspeople. “That used to be a six-hour drive, so people would have to drive all day and stay overnight in order to conduct their business; with the new road, they can do it all in one day,” she said. “I want to be involved in projects like that, that will encourage movement out of Accra, into other areas of the country that have untapped potential, and at the same time abate traffic congestion in Accra.”

Both young women are savoring Northern California’s beauty and mild climate, but neither dreams of staying in the United States after their education is complete. “In Kenya we have a tradition where we address each other as ‘my brother,’ or ‘my sister,” like we are all an extended family,” Allibhai said. “I have a duty to my fellow brothers and sisters back home.”

Related Materials:
Read the UC Berkeley press release.
Read The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program press release.