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First black South African undergrads to graduate from Stanford

STANFORD -- In his seven years at Stanford's Office of Undergraduate Admissions, Jon Reider has had the job of reading applications from thousands of bright international high school students.

Few things have given him more pleasure, though, than the knowledge that three of them - Omphemetse Mooki, Owen Maubane and Sanjay Raghu - soon will become the first black and Indian South African undergraduates ever to graduate from Stanford.

"I'm thrilled," said Reider, who has been a troubleshooter and guide for the students since they first applied in 1987.

"I suppose I was for Stanford's divestment from South African companies, but I didn't think that was much more than symbolic. But here was something I felt would be helpful to the future democratic South Africa and would be good for Stanford.

"The real question was, could students from such a politically and educationally disadvantaged background handle Stanford?" Reider said. "I said I thought they could and, happily, they proved me right.

"These students have contributed a lot to the Stanford community in terms of bringing home the realities of South Africa, and they have done very well academically."

So well, in fact, that Mooki will be going to Oxford University next year on a Rhodes Scholarship - one of three Stanford students chosen for the honor.

No lab facilities

Mooki was born in the small South African township of Montshioa, and reared by his uncle and aunt. His schools "were fairly typical of most government-run schools for blacks," he said, with few qualified instructors or textbooks, broken windows in the classrooms, no laboratories, and an abysmal graduation rate.

Nevertheless, he persisted, and in his senior year won a scholarship to the Milton Academy, a college preparatory school near Boston, through the Independent Schools South African Education Program.

Mooki had never heard of Stanford until he met Reider at a Milton Academy College Faire.

"He made quite an impression about Stanford," Mooki recalled. "It was important to know that people out there had confidence in me, regardless of any educational limitations I may have had."

At Stanford, Mooki has pursued a degree in microbiology and immunology, and worked on an independent project, at the university's Center for AIDS Research, to see if the drug Ofloxacin might be used to treat people infected with the human immunodeficiency virus.

He also designed and conducted an AIDS education project for students at his high school in South Africa. And he has served as a student AIDS educator at Stanford, an English tutor, a counselor of underprivileged youth in the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program and vice president of the Stanford African Students Association.

At Oxford, Mooki plans to pursue a master's degree in microbiology. Eventually he hopes to return to South Africa, to teach and conduct research.

"With the transformation of my country, there is a great need for more qualified black people to assume significant roles," Mooki said.

"We need people to represent the major portion of the country's population, and the opportunity to study at places like Stanford is certainly one of the ways of ensuring that."

Anglican schools

Maubane, whose late father was a bank executive in Johannesburg, went to predominantly white Anglican schools. These began to open up to black students - against the government's wishes - in the early 1970s.

"I was the first black at my primary school and one of the first black students at my high school," he said. "Now the school is 20 or 30 percent black, so things have changed a lot."

Maubane spent some time time at the University of Johannesburg and came to Stanford as a freshman in the fall of 1988. He has pursued a major in economics and eventually hopes to earn a graduate business degree.

"Overall, I've had a great experience here," he said. "For me to go to a predominantly white private high school was a big step, and at first I was afraid that Stanford would be very elite, too. But once I got here, I adapted and moved on. I've enjoyed the relaxed environment here."

Raghu, the son of a salesman and a dress designer, grew up in an Indian neighborhood about an hour outside of Durban, in the province of Natal, South Africa.

Conditions at his schools were not extremely bad, he said, but they were not wonderful either: there weren't sufficient textbooks, lab or recreational facilities, "and there was a lot of overcrowding."

Getting enough money for college was particularly tough, he said, since most white-owned companies in South Africa did not give scholarships to Indians or blacks. Eventually, though, he managed to get financial aid from the city of Durban's electrical engineering department, and took up studies at the University of Natal.

From there, the Institute for International Education recommended him to Stanford, and a Stanford scholarship allowed him to transfer as a sophomore and continue his engineering studies.

"Back in South Africa," Raghu said, "it wouldn't be that easy to make friends with other races. You'd be more hesitant to introduce yourself. But Stanford students are extremely friendly and they come from almost every place you can think of, especially at the Bechtel International Center. There's always someone new to meet."

Although Mooki, Maubane and Raghu are the first black and Indian South African undergrads to complete their Stanford studies, they won't be the last. Currently, four more black South African undergraduates are enrolled on campus, with another coming next fall.

"I don't have to do the recruiting now," Reider said, happily. "These students are hearing about us through word of mouth."



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