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STANFORD -- Each spring, the Stanford African Students Association puts on Africa Week, a lively series of programs ranging from panel discussions and films to parties ringing with African music, dance and cuisine.

Yet behind the festivities lies a troubling irony: At a time when Stanford and other American universities are seeing record enrollments of students from around the world, the number of students able to come to America from Africa is dwindling.

Last year, the Institute for International Education reported that just 5.2 percent (21,890) of all international students in the United States were from Africa, the lowest percentage in 30 years.

At Stanford alone, the number of recorded students from sub-Saharan Africa dropped from a high of 60 in 1985-86 to 28 this year, or 1 percent of the university's total international student population of 2,373. For comparison, the number of Stanford students this year from Japan alone is 194.

"Primarily, the drop in African students is a factor of worsening economic conditions," said John Pearson, director of Stanford's Bechtel International Center, who compiles the statistics each year. "There is a severe lack of funding for African students to study abroad."

Agrees Kwaku Osafo-Mensah, a Stanford medical student from Ghana: "It used to be the case that African students could get funding for their education overseas. Now they have to fend for themselves."

Students from newly independent African nations first began coming to the United States in significant numbers during the 1960s. By 1985, after the OPEC oil boom, oil-rich Nigeria was the third highest country of origin for international students in the United States. Five years later, with oil prices plummeting, it had disappeared from the top 10.

"The trends in the 1980s were clearly related to Africa's deep economic crisis," said David Abernethy, a Stanford political scientist specializing in African affairs who has worked in Nigeria and Tanzania.

"African governments used to pay the bills for their students overseas, but they don't have the capacity to do that anymore. Most countries there are very deeply in debt, and the debt as a proportion of their exports is much higher in African countries than elsewhere. They're extremely poor, their economies are contracting, and still they're expected to pay back their debtors."

Compounding the problem, he said, is the lack of a prosperous middle class in most African countries.

"With the exception of Nigeria, Africa does not have a large number of middle-class parents with the money to send their own children overseas," Abernethy said. "I would guess, for example, that far fewer Indian students are on government scholarships than Africans, because of the relatively large Indian middle class."

African students also are finding it harder to obtain funding from outside agencies, according to Stanford history Professor Richard Roberts, director of the Joint Stanford-Berkeley Center for African Studies.

"There was a time when African students received significant support from places like the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation," he said. "That has dried up as these foundations have shifted their efforts toward international issues like the environment and international security."

Indeed, many funding agencies are rethinking the idea of supporting overseas education for African students altogether.

"There are some strong arguments for African countries to rely more on locally trained talent," Abernethy said.

"One of the problems with a technical degree from the United States is that it is built upon a whole infrastructure that includes access to computers, laboratories and capital. Oftentimes the technical training generates skills that are simply not possible for the African student to apply at home."

A possible long-term approach is for American universities to help African countries improve their own university systems, though book shipments, research cooperation and exchange programs.

In the late 1980s, the Stanford South African Schools Project sent several boxes of used textbooks to South African secondary schools, and further shipments to African universities are being discussed, according to Abernethy.

In addition, the Joint Stanford-Berkeley Center for African Studies is using a grant from the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences to send an advanced doctoral student to teach at South Africa's University of the Western Cape. Seven graduate students from five departments have applied for this position.

Such help is more than welcome, according to Nigerian political scientist Michael Maduagwu, a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution.

"In terms of facilities, Nigerian universities are really in a sorry state," he said. "Our libraries are essentially empty; there are virtually no current journals. It's a very terrible state of affairs. If every American university could adopt a university in Nigeria, it would make a world of difference."

African students have contributed greatly over the years to the international atmosphere at Stanford, working closely with African studies scholars and organizing the university's Africa Week each spring.

In recent years, the student body has included a handful of black South African undergraduates, recruited through the Independent Schools South Africa Education Program. Among those graduating last June was microbiology student Omphemetse Mooki, a 1992 Rhodes Scholar.



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