Interest in African studies explodes at Stanford

Courses offered through the Center for African Studies have increased enrollment, and more Stanford students than ever are working and researching on the continent.

Brenda Mutuma Ugandan families

Ugandan families wait in line for farm animals given away by Heifer International, where Stanford senior Brenda Mutuma is volunteering this summer.

Laura Hunter was 35,000 feet above Africa, watching the sunrise over the place she would call home for the next several weeks. The Stanford junior was about to touch down in Ghana to start a fellowship at a medical clinic treating some of the country's poorest people.

Raised in Seattle and planning to pursue a medical career, the biology major was traveling alone outside the United States for the first time.

Within a few days, Hunter was filling prescriptions, taking measurements of blood pressure, dressing and cleaning sores. Then she started working on a case that has had the biggest impact on her so far – the rehabilitation of a woman who fell from a tree and needs physical therapy to, hopefully, walk again.

"At first, connecting with Assibi was tough … but over time we have been able to make a connection," Hunter, an African Service Fellow, said in an email from Tamale, Ghana. "Forming that one-on-one bond with a patient and watching her improve has been very rewarding."

Hunter is one of dozens of Stanford students looking to the African continent for research opportunities and a chance to serve. Interest in African studies in the past few years has exploded on campus.

Enrollment in courses offered through the Center for African Studies is up 27 percent over the last eight years. The center's Cape Town Summer Fellowship Program, which allows students to conduct research in service of a community organization, had three times as many participants this year as last.

Brenda MutumaSchool children

School children pose with Stanford senior Brenda Mutuma (right), who is in Uganda volunteering for Heifer International, which provides farm animals to families in need.

And applicants for the university's study abroad program in Cape Town are double the available slots.

And more students than ever are studying and engaging in research on the continent through programs offered at the Graduate School of Business, School of Engineering and School of Medicine.

"It's a really exciting moment," said political science Associate Professor Jeremy Weinstein, the director of the Center for African Studies. "The really special thing about what's happening at Stanford is that our students who are so motivated and inspired to have an impact in the world see the opportunities and challenges on the African continent as the most important and inspiring challenges to take on in the world."

Weinstein, also a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, said 20 or 30 years ago most study about Africa was an afterthought buried as a subtopic within disciplines.

"Now, Africa is a laboratory for furthering our understanding of important problems," he said. "So many of the new and important works in many disciplines – whether political science, biology or economics – are now being done to answer questions, and using data and evidence, that relate to the African experience. That's an incredible transformation."

Economic possibility, social change

Weinstein said researchers in Africa are exploring the roots of prosperity, the emergence of democratic institutions, conflict resolution and entrepreneurship, among other topics. Fueling that scholarship is the little known fact that six of the 10 fastest growing economies of the world over the past decade are African economies.

"You get a sense now that multinational corporations, venture capitalists and technologists are seized not only with the possibilities of playing a role in addressing some of the extremely concerning challenges on the African continent but also seeing it as a place with big and wide open markets, a place with economic possibility," Weinstein said.

Hannah RichSummer research and service fellowship

Stanford student Hannah Rich (right) teaches a medicinal herbs class to second-grade students during a summer research and service fellowship in Cape Town, South Africa.

Students who are volunteering and studying there are not only confronting the challenges faced in the communities where they work but they're also grappling with their own questions about what it means to be there.

Hannah Rich, a Stanford human biology major, who received a Cape Town Summer Fellowship to conduct research with SEED, an organization that promotes environmental education through school gardening in severely under-resourced areas, said she felt lucky to spend time unraveling the intensity of the city as a researcher, explorer and learner.

But her experience "also pushed me to struggle through my own relationship to my role as an affluent white American researcher coming into spaces and communities latent with power dynamics residual from the time of apartheid," she said. "I had to reconcile my own research aspirations with the unintended negative consequences of presence."

Growth in time of struggle

Stanford has been able to grow its Africa programs despite the current political and economic climate. Public funding for area and international studies programs nationwide has been uncertain in recent years.

Last year, Congress passed deep cuts to Title VI and Fulbright-Hays allocations, which help support language instruction, overseas research and teaching. Universities were left on shaky ground, not knowing what funding might be available for the future.

But Stanford's program is on an increasingly strong footing. The Center for African Studies recently received a $2.5 million gift from philanthropist Susan Ford Dorsey with matching funds of $1.7 million provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Laura HunterClinic in Tamale

Stanford junior Laura Hunter (left) prepares prescriptions with her boss, Gifty, at a clinic in Tamale, Ghana, where Hunter volunteered this summer as an African Service Fellow.

The gift will endow the directorship of the center and provide valuable ongoing support for language programs, research grants and on-campus programs for the Stanford community. It also will support the new Susan Ford Dorsey Fellowship for Field Research in Africa. The fellowship provides financial support for research that doctoral candidates undertake for their dissertation projects.

"It's just very clear that studying Africa and helping the whole continent develop more in terms of governance structure, appropriate harvesting of natural resources and entrepreneurship is so important," Ford Dorsey said. "There is real help that Stanford students can provide, but it's also a huge opportunity for the students to develop knowledge and gain practical experience."

Ford Dorsey said she was inspired to give, in part, because of the experience her stepson, Stanford alum Jonathan Dorsey, had working on HIV/AIDS in Zambia.

"It really changed his life. It really set the direction of his life," she said. Ford Dorsey is hopeful her gift will inspire others. "There are so many opportunities for scholarship," she said.

The hub

The Center for African Studies is part of the Division of International Comparative and Area Studies, which is part of the School of Humanities and Sciences. There are 14 area and international programs and centers in ICA, including Jewish studies, Mediterranean studies and South Asia studies.

Weinstein describes the role of the Center for African Studies as providing a home and hub for a multidisciplinary, multigenerational community interested in scholarship on the African continent.

Laura HunterShekhinah clinic

Dr. David Abdulai (right) greets a patient during rounds at the Shekhinah Clinic in Tamale, Ghana, where Stanford student Laura Hunter is a volunteer.

"Every day, I and many others are inspired to speak up and speak out and think critically about everything Africa at the center," said Brenda Mutuma, a Stanford senior who worked in Uganda this summer at Heifer International through an African Service Fellowship.

Mutuma says the professors and others she has met at the center, where she has been an administrative assistant, inspire and challenge her.

"There is always a conversation being had about where and what and why and how Africa is in relation to the rest of the world yesterday, today and tomorrow," she said.

Weinstein said right now interest in African studies exceeds what the center can offer, but he is hopeful to expand research and study opportunities and strengthen ties between Stanford and African institutions.

"Given the extraordinary level of interest from students, we're thinking a lot in African studies about how we can use our expertise and resources to create a gateway for students at Stanford to come to discover what's interesting and special and challenging about the study of Africa," he said.

Laura Hubbard, Center for African Studies: (650) 725-9098,

Brooke Donald, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,