The Nairobi Global Center, the first in Africa, is providing a hub for academic and research opportunities for the Columbia community across the continent.
The center, which officially opened last week, has programs in place to give students and faculty on-the-ground experience and opportunities to further their research and make a difference in the local community.
In conjunction with Princeton’s Mpala Research Centre in central Kenya, the Nairobi center sponsors the Tropical Biology and Sustainability Program for undergraduate students, which allows 10 Columbia juniors to study ecological communities and sustainable development in Kenya alongside students from Princeton and a Kenyan university.
The center, which has been operating since January 2012, will also provide opportunities for professors. Belay Begashaw, the center’s director, is working to bring faculty from various Columbia schools to enhance research opportunities there.
“We have been trying to build more programs and attract more departments and centers in Columbia’s main campus to open projects, and also bring Columbia’s people, place them here, and start working according to where their interests are,” Begashaw said.
The center was officially launched at an event that University President Lee Bollinger, faculty members, and Kenyan government leaders attended on Jan. 14.
Five schools at Columbia have already begun work in Kenya with support from the center—including the School of Engineering and Applied Science, which is working to develop information technology-based programs on water and solar energy, and the Mailman School of Public Health, which is researching nutrition in East Africa.
The center also works closely with the Kenyan government to design programs that benefit the country.
“We have to base our information, programs, advice, and all of these things on their priorities and to help to accomplish their visions,” Begashaw said. “We are very careful not to take the driving seat from them.”
Safwan Masri, vice president for global centers, said that the Nairobi hub—Columbia’s eighth—fits into the University’s larger plan for a connected network of global centers.
“Each center is unique in that it is meant to grow organically and capture opportunities that the region it is in provides,” Masri said. “It also provides a good foundation for faculty and student interests.”
Students who arrive at the center will have a one-day orientation where they will learn about the center’s initiatives and research and spend time at local field sites, including the Millennium Villages Project, a program run by Columbia’s Earth Institute to help African communities combat poverty.
“The centers really are there to further our faculty and students’ understanding of the world,” Masri said. “The amount of learning by virtue of interacting with other students and the education that you get from being immersed in that country and region is invaluable.”
Undergraduate students interviewed Wednesday said they think the program will provide knowledge that cannot be gained in a Columbia classroom.
“I’m interested in biology and it would be an exotic experience,” Nisha Iyer, BC ’16 and a prospective biology major, said.
“I think that the program, from what I’ve heard, seems like it’s going to be a great opportunity for Columbia students in terms of research in Kenya,” Eric Kutscher, CC ’13, said.
Kutscher, who studied abroad in Kenya during his junior year, called Kenya the perfect place to study ecology because “the wildlife and environment is so amazing.”
Still, he said he had a few doubts about the program and was interested in hearing about firsthand experiences from students currently abroad.
“I’m sure the program will expand and there is potential in terms of what research is done, but it could be a bit neocolonial,” Kutscher said.
Thirty students in the Master of Public Administration in Development Practice program at the School of International and Public Affairs will spend three-month placements at the center, working with the Millennium Villages Project in surrounding countries—a program that has drawn praise from SIPA students.
“It’s good to be able to study sustainable development in the field,” Guy Bloembergen, SIPA ’13 and a MPA student, said. “Coming to a place like SIPA, it should be required.”
“I think that it could offer great opportunities for on-the-ground experience, as students can engage in projects and implement the theory they have learned,” Sacha Manov, SIPA ’13, said.
Manov, who is working toward her master’s degree in international affairs, added, “It’s a great test pilot program that will be especially beneficial in gaining skills and being able to apply the skills that you learned within other contexts.”