April 28, 2010 — Almost 200 students at the University of Virginia hail from more than 25 countries in Africa. Added to that are students with multiple ethnic backgrounds who are part African and some American students who have spent time growing up on the continent.
Through the Organization of African Students, they have worked to create a welcoming environment for African students and interested non-African students, to contribute to awareness and activism relating to the world's second-largest continent. In recent years, the group pushed for more academic emphasis on Africa, which led to the creation of an African studies minor.
Several students created a new program this year, the African Studies Forum, which presented bimonthly interdisciplinary lectures and discussions about Africa, past and present.
Iberedem "IB" Ekure, a fourth-year electrical engineering student from Nigeria, served as OAS president in the 2008-09 academic year, and he said others had asked for more events on topics concerning African issues.
He and fellow undergraduates Stephanie de Wolfe, Lolan Sagoe-Moses and Ishraga Eltahir started brainstorming last summer about how to bring more visibility to what they felt was an underrepresented area. They organized a series of lectures in which faculty and graduate students spoke about their Africa-related research, and another set of student-led discussions taking on current events and issues. They enlisted graduate students' participation, as well.
"It came together pretty quickly," de Wolfe said. "I was surprised by people willing to move forward and be committed" to participate in the African Studies Forum and keep it going.
"There's a complicated and nuanced face to African studies," she said. "We wanted to bring in different perspectives and backgrounds."
African studies is interdisciplinary, involving several academic areas, including anthropology, history and politics.
Jason Hickel, a graduate student in anthropology who grew up in Swaziland, tried himself in the past few years to get an informal discussion group together on Africa.
"There is a significant gap between the growing interest in Africa among undergraduates and the academic infrastructure that U.Va. has available to support them," he said. "The consequence is that well-intentioned students who want to help address poverty and underdevelopment in Africa lack the knowledge they need to do so in an informed way.
"The forum aims to help close this gap by creating a space for students to grow in their understanding of the history and politics that shape the continent, and rethink common stereotypes that Westerners tend to have about Africa," he said.
Hickel is writing his dissertation on peoples and cultures of Africa, with an emphasis on social issues, violence and development.
He led a discussion about Sudan and the political problems there that Ekure and Sagoe-Moses said was enlightening.
"We talked about what's going on in the whole country, not just Darfur," Ekure said.
People around the world tend to generalize from Darfur to the entire continent, he said. Even African students have a tendency to think because they are African, they know everything about Africa – but they don't, he added.
Ekure said he hopes the forum sparks more interest from African students, as well as anyone else interested.
Hickel said the African Studies Forum has been "a vibrant space for intellectual engagement." He said the momentum of the undergraduates has been successful in bringing faculty and students together around Africa and related topics.
Sagoe-Moses, a first-year student from Ghana, said he knew he wanted to study Africa when he came to U.Va. and is in the process of designing his own major.
"I couldn't see going through college without fulfilling my dream of using the knowledge to serve my continent," he said. "I am passionate about this, but I need the intellectual background to produce results."
Sagoe-Moses is taking the lead from de Wolfe and Ekure to continue the forum next year. It is already in the planning stages.
Cynthia Hoehler-Fatton, an associate professor of religious studies and associate director of the Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, also directs the undergraduate program in African-American and African Studies. An informal adviser to the students responsible for the forum, she said it has had a significant impact on programming.