How MIT Woos African students

The competition for Africa's best technical students is strong, global -- and intensifying. In the past year, the Chinese government officials have outlined plans for bringing thousands of sub-Saharan Africa's best students in the People's Republic of China, whose top science and engineering schools are increasingly worthy of international acclaim. African students are responding.

When I visited Rwanda last year, I met a university graduate considered among the best young software programmers in the country. Clothilde Tingiri, the programmer, dreamed of gaining a master's degree, as I've written elsewhere, not at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., but in Tsing Hua University in Beijing. Tingiri's choice of China over America for further engineering studies was dictated chiefly by pragmatism: the Chinese offered her a generous scholarship.

Africa isn't usually viewed as a source of future scholars, but in a globalizing world, the best American universities are paying more attention than ever to foreign students. Which explains why on Tuesday, March 25, MIT is holding its first-ever "West Africa Networking Reception" in Accra, Ghana. The event is hosted by MIT's Sloan Africa Business Club, comprised of students in MIT'sSloan School of Management. Thirty Sloan students are in Ghana this week meeting with African alums and business students at university's in Ghana.

Accra is a good location for MIT's event, which aims both to raise awareness of the university in an Anglophone zone of Africa and connect with its small but vital alumni community in the region.

Connecting Africa's best students to American intellectual networks is an important counterweight against the significant "brain drain" that continues to hamper life for Africa's engineers and scientists. When I lived in Ghana in 2003, one of the most significant software shops in the country was run by an MIT graduate named Mauli Tse. Another MIT graduate, Victor Mallet, launched a successful business-plan competition in Ghana, funded by his alma mater. Then in 2005 MIT gave access, via the Internet, to students at three African universities to five of its labs. "If you can't come to the lab, the lab will come to you," Jesus del Alamo, co-principal investigator on the Africa project and a professor in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, said at the time.

MIT's efforts are part a long-term movement to better appeal to the best African students -- and better support those who return to their home countries to pursue their careers.

And earlier this month, MIT held an "Africa Week," organized in part by the university's dynamic African Student Association.

MIT deserves credit for wooing talented Africans -- and helping Africans who decide to stay at home. Other universities are taking note -- and not only in the U.S.

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