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Cornell’s African Degree Program Creates New Model For International Educational Cooperation

Cornell University and Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia have signed an agreement that could create a new model for how U.S. colleges and universities can export their expertise to poor nations where it is needed most.

 Starting on Nov. 1, Cornell professors will travel to Bahir Dar to help establish a graduate program in international agriculture and rural development at Bahir Dar University. Upon graduation, students will receive a master’s in professional studies from Cornell without ever spending any time in Ithaca.

 â€ťOur goal is not only to teach individual students skills that are critical for economic development but to strengthen African educational institutions,” says  Dr. Alice Pell,  director of  Cornell’s International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development, who cultivated the program along with Dr. Tammo Steenhuis, a professor of  biological and environmental engineering.

“Over the years, Cornell and other colleges have had many exchange programs that  brought international students to the United States,” Pell says, “but one of the limitations of this approach is that too many of them stayed here and didn’t take those skills back home. Rather than bring African students to get an education at Cornell, this program will bring Cornell’s educational resources to Africa.”  

The ultimate goal of the program is to build it up so that it can completely be turned over to Bahir Dar University in a few years. The program, which will specialize in watershed management, is located in an ideal location. Bahir Dar is situated on Lake Tana which is the source of the Blue Nile, one of Africa’s most important sources of drinking water.

“As a natural laboratory in watershed management, it is nearly perfect,” says Steenhuis, who has worked extensively in Ethiopia and has known the faculty at Bahir Dar for a long time. “There is a major silting problem and there are water conflicts between Egypt and the Sudan.

“However,” he adds, “it will also be an experiment in new ways of teaching engineering. The curriculum develops technical skills in hydrology, watershed management, project administration and cross-cultural communications. But it also requires a six-credit practicum. Students must complete a project that integrates the theory with the ecology of a poor county where even the “experts” don’t have the massive amounts of  data one would expect to do the same project in the U.S. or Europe.” 

The program is being jointly sponsored by Cornell and the World Bank. Working through the Ethiopian government, Bahir Dar received a World Bank grant of $50,000 to support 20 Ethiopian students who competed for admission into the 30-credit program. Cornell is providing scholarship grants for the students’ degrees, as well as plane tickets for professors and logistical and administrative support. “There can be some surprising administrative challenges,” notes Pell, “little things like how do you register students for Fall and Spring classes in a country that doesn’t have the same seasons?” 

–Paul Ruffins


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