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USF's links to Africa create exchange of students, ideas

What could there be at the University of South Florida that would interest the daughter of retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

USF has spent five years forging alliances with schools and development groups in Africa. President Betty Castor and professors in colleges ranging from fine arts to engineering view the continent as an opportunity to train students, import other cultures to an urban American campus and have a significant effect on a part of the world they believe will become more important globally.

"Africa will become a much larger economic power in the years ahead," says Castor, who started her career more than 30 years ago teaching high school girls at the Kibuli School in Kampala, Uganda. "There's a tremendous need for education and public health. We have an opportunity to influence the course of events."

Thandeka Tutu-Gxashe, 40, took time from her studies in medicine at Emory University in Atlanta to spend Tuesday at USF as the guest of Juel Smith, director of the university's Institute on Black Life and the institute's Center for Africa and the Diaspora. Tutu-Gxashe wanted to explore what USF might have to offer South African universities in the areas of research, technical assistance and faculty/student exchanges, said Institute staff member Marilyn Matthiew.

Through personal contacts such as these, Smith has gradually built ties that have brought African students and professors to USF and garnered invitations for USF faculty to conferences in Africa.

One of those invitations took Smith, Castor and USF faculty members to Zimbabwe this summer for the Fourth African/African-American Summit, which attracts educators, business people and others interested in the development of sub-Saharan Africa. The USF delegation also visited schools in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, they met Dr. David Ndaba, who recently became the first African surgeon to graduate from USF's College of Medicine. Ndaba had represented the African National Congress to the United Nations before apartheid ended; now he was introducing USF's president to the leaders of the University of Pretoria.

"You have no idea what a big deal it is for you to be introduced by a black man," he told Castor.

Marvin Moore, assistant director of research for the Institute on Black Life, says the end of apartheid and a movement toward democracy in other African countries has opened up a world formerly closed to American scholars and ended the isolation of African professors.

"It's almost like a new frontier for academics," he says. He'll help coordinate research projects in Africa among USF's various colleges. There are numerous initiatives already under way:

The Africana Studies program in the College of Arts and Sciences is working on an exchange agreement with the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. It already offers a summer studies course in Ghana. The college also has brought African professors to USF to lecture on anthropology.

Faculty at the International Business Center in the College of Business Administration want to help African countries develop their economies.

In Uganda, says Kathy Betancourt, the university's lobbyist in Tallahassee, the USF visitors were told that people were saving money for the first time. Under former dictator Idi Amin, inflation was rampant and nobody trusted banks.

"There's a need for people in places like Uganda to adjust to change in the business world, to learn about financing and how to run a business," says Betancourt. "They're looking for partners."

At USF's College of Public Health, students from Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Zimbabwe are studying for doctoral degrees. Five students from Swaziland are pursuing engineering degrees through the College of Engineering's Center for Urban Transportation Research.

The College of Education is organizing an internship program that will allow USF students to spend a summer studying in African countries.

The College of Fine Arts recently established an endowed chair in African art. It's holding an exhibition on campus of contemporary African art, which is scheduled to tour the United States. The college also plans to set up faculty/student exchanges for a "Study in Africa" program.

"This is part of a larger goal of USF, to concentrate on internationalizing our curriculum," Castor said. "We've made it a priority to introduce our students to global issues and affairs."

As part of that effort, USF recently held a daylong symposium featuring officials from the World Bank. Students and faculty attended special sessions on Latin America and Africa to learn how they could get involved in World Bank projects in those areas. The World Bank, in turn, benefits from the contacts it makes among people with knowledge and interest in the countries it is working in.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for us to test ideas and rub elbows with those doing pure research," said Robert Calderisi, the bank's spokesman for African affairs. "We've already identified several faculty members we'd like to come to the World Bank for sabbaticals."

USF made a good impression, he says. Someone had thought to include a Moroccan flag behind the podium along with the United States and USF flags. One of the World Bank visitors was from Morocco. "They're not just hospitable," Calderisi said of his USF hosts, "they're organized."

In her office at the Institute on Black Life, Smith recalled that the outreach efforts to Africa began when a student from Zaire came to the institute, looking for help finding a job and for contact with people who knew something about Africa.

Since then, Smith said, "We've become a center for students from other countries looking for a sense of home."

That first student, Annie Nganda-Nundeke, is still at USF, studying for a doctorate in anthropology. She put Smith in touch with one of her former professors in Gabon who was running the International Center for Bantu Civilizations, which works to preserve cultures of black Africa. In 1992, USF became the first American university to affiliate with the center.

Getting African students and faculty to USF proved daunting; few African nations can afford to pay for study abroad. So Smith organized the Center for Africa and the Diaspora as a vehicle to get funding and started making contacts with agencies in New York City and Washington, D.C.

She got USF listed with the African-American Institute in New York City, which brings African students to American universities.

There are now 30 African students at USF, and Smith works hard to make them feel at home.

"We want to make USF a university where international students will feel very comfortable," she says.

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