Open Day for High School Students at Africa University
Greetings from Africa University where today was "Open Day" -- a day when busloads of high school students visit campus and dream of a college education.
Four of us -- Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton; Joyce Francis, a member of Peoria Bethel UMC and a member of the IGRC's Africa University Task Force; Richard Straub, a member of Orion UMC and chair of the Africa University Task Force; and myself are in Mutare, Zimbabwe, for the three-day celebration of the 20th year of Africa University.
But it is also a day of dreams...of recalling dreams of the past and how they have been accomplished through God's help and extravagant generosity by persons across the United Methodist connection, but today's tour was especially noteworthy for those of us from IGRC.
Open Day is very much akin to recruitment days held at colleges and universities in which the institution puts its best face forward in trying to align its hopes of landing students with the dreams and hopes of the individuals. Things are a little different in Zimbabwe, as the dream of a college education seems to be almost impossible and Africa University is the dream of many of these high school students.
Just as we are recovering from an economic downturn, Sharai, the information officer at Africa University, explained the economy hit rock bottom in Zimbabwe in 2009, with unemployment nearing 90 percent. However, despite the conditions, Africa University continued to operate with financial integrity and prudent leadership.
So what would be the sales pitch to give these high school students?
Consider these things:
- The university has six faculties (schools) within its operation -- Theology, Agriculture, Management and Administration, Humanities and Social Sciences; Health Science; Education; and most recently added, The Institute of Peace, Leadership and Governance.
- Students who can't pay for an education are able to give something of value to the college -- whether it is livestock, timber or other items that help operate the school. The barter system and work for educational opportunities are very much alive and has made educations possible.
- Students that graduate are highly marketable. In Zimbabwe alone, there are 18 universities but most are government-operated and there has been a great deal of turmoil and protest. While students get an education, Africa University's value added degree comes from instilling a good work ethic, grounding their students to show up for work and give an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. These factors along with business partnerships set Africa University students apart.
- Africa University has a continental field of service. While other schools tend to serve their own areas, Africa University has never lost the vision of Bishop Joseph Hartzell, who in 1896, saw the school as a place that would change the face of Africa.
The vision of Africa University is "improved quality of life, peace and prosperity for the peoples of Africa through quality higher education that includes teaching, research, community service and leadership development."
Sharai said that graduates' employment fortunes really are based upon their home countries' situation:
- "Those that graduate from post-conflict countries like Angola and Liberia -- our graduates are greatly needed because education was missing for a number of years. These graduates secure good jobs and are the nation's leaders," she said.
- "Regions like South Africa with highly developed and stable national economies may take awhile for graduates, but they do find a job,' Shari explained.
- And for those countries like Zimbabwe, an Africa University degree is spawning a cadre of entrepreneurs who are creating jobs where jobs do not exist. "For them, it is a realization that obtaining a good education isn't necessarily for a job (although they may be employed); rather, a good education enables our graduates to create something new."
You don't have to look very far to see our conference's imprint on Africa University. We talked with Sharai from the large meeting room of the Richard Reeves Wesley Foundation named in honor of longtime AU Trustee the late Richard "Dick" Reeves and his wife Joyce. Reeves was a member of Decatur First UMC and Joyce Reeves is still a member. Speaking of the couple, "They are trees of knowledge, wellsprings of faith and builders of bridges to dreams," a plaque reads outside the Student Center -- funded by gifts and offerings of the IGRC.
And speaking of bridges and dreams: the Bridge of Dreams, for which the former Central Illinois Conference raised funds, greeted us as we entered campus. The Central Illinois Conference honored the eight years of service by Bishop Woodie W. White from 1984-1992 by raising funds for the bridge's construction.
There have been other brick and mortar projects and a new Ubuntu Retreat Center, funded by the West Michigan Conference is set to open later this year.
But perhaps it is a time to shift focus and help some of those high school students reach their dreams. For the past several years, we have been funding scholarships for AU students, but what would a big dream look like? What would it mean to really make an impact on the African continent?
We have just raised $2.3 million for Imagine No Malaria -- only the second conference in all of United Methodism to do it and we did it without a major gift of $100,000 or more. This means we were all invested. What if we took a similar tactic to make sure that African students need not be concerned about the cost of an education if they will dedicate themselves to study and to ethical and moral service in their home countries when they graduate? We might see a seismic shift on the continent, similar to moving the needle with Imagine No Malaria from every 30 seconds a person dies of malaria to every minute.
That's significant. With God's help, we can do it again with Africa University.