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Top US university in Africa graduates first students

Internationally respected Carnegie Mellon University became the first highly ranked American institution to operate a fully-fledged campus in Africa when it set up in tiny, post-conflict Rwanda in September 2011. The first batch of students graduated last month.

The pioneering effort in the central African nation is enabling young people from across the continent to obtain a world-class education in their home region.

“The graduation underscores Carnegie Mellon University and the government of Rwanda’s commitment to educating engineers and entrepreneurs who are striving to make an economic impact in East Africa,” officials said in a statement.

Other places where Carnegie Mellon runs campuses include Silicon Valley in California, Qatar, Mexico, the Asian region, Australia and Europe.

Centre of ICT excellence

Rwanda – the size of the American state of Maryland – spiralled into genocide in 1994 after the president, an ethnic Hutu, died when his plane was shot down. At least 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis but also moderate Hutus, were murdered in subsequent mass slaughter.

Two decades later, the nation of 11 million people is back on its feet but the bitter memories remain.

Carnegie Mellon’s Africa campus is based in the capital Kigali and serves as a centre of excellence – it is primarily meant as a regional ICT hub for East Africa, while at the same time helping the Rwandan government to create an innovation incubator to nurture students’ entrepreneurial skills.

In 2007 the International Telecommunication Union – the United Nations specialised agency for information and communication technologies – recommended establishing centres of excellence throughout Africa to cultivate the science and technology skills required to develop an IT workforce and expertise on the continent.

“Being present in East Africa is the only way to understand the region’s technology needs,” said Bruce Krogh, inaugural director of Carnegie Mellon University in East Africa.

The university prides itself as the first US institution to offer a masters degree programme taught by full-time faculty resident in Africa. Already, 22 students have received a masters in information technology.

It is hoped that the university’s graduates will lead the next generation of innovators and business leaders responsible for propelling the region’s economic and social growth into the future.

Stemming brain drain, linking with business

“Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda is delivering the same quality of education in Kigali as it does on its main campus,” added the Africa director of the Pittsburgh-based global institution.

Each year, more than 200,000 young Africans leave the continent in search of higher quality education in the developed world.

“These are often the best students from Africa, and they obtain scholarships from their governments and other organisations to support their studies. Now, they can stay in Africa and obtain that same support and quality of education,” Krogh told University World News.

To ensure that Carnegie Mellon University’s research and curriculum in Rwanda are relevant to Africa, officials said, faculty and students engage with local companies and transnational corporations on a continual basis.

Analysts say the American institution has embarked on an exciting adventure to build a new model of higher education for Africa – one that is Africa-based, provides high quality education, is technologically sophisticated and most importantly is linked to the private sector in an emerging economy.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Africa is one of the world’s fastest growing regions and is hungry for skilled labour to spur further growth.

The programme provides for a three-month paid internship for students to work with cutting-edge ICT companies such as General Electric and IBM, enabling the students to become familiar with opportunities in Africa and to build a network of contacts.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has praised the initiative, saying that the academic-business partnership is timely and will help to match skills where they are most needed to address challenges and change lives for the better.

“Our national development agenda is focused on investing in our major and indispensible resource, which is our people, hence the need of transforming our society into a knowledge-based one,” added the president, who is credited with restoring peace and rebuilding the central African country in the aftermath of the 1994 tragedy.

The university is currently working on developing new scholarships to complement the 50% tuition scholarship that has been offered by the Rwandan government to applicants from countries within East Africa.

Quality programmes

Carnegie Mellon University was ranked seventh in undergraduate engineering and fifth in graduate engineering in the United States, in the latest US News & World Report. And it has been ranked 12th in the world in engineering and technology by Times Higher Education.

The Africa campus offers two graduate programmes, including its founding masters in science in information technology. A masters in electrical and computer engineering has just been launched.

“The school is providing a world-class education that will allow East African students to compete on a global stage in the fields of technology, engineering and computer science,” said Michel Bézy, an associate director at the institution and distinguished service professor.

“Our programmes here are open to students worldwide, but are mainly targeted at students from the East Africa,” said Bézy, adding that 25% of the initial enrolment were women.

Ugandan-born Lynn Kirabo, a second year student, said her studies had changed her thinking. “From learning how to use digital information to making business decisions and learning about security, I literally feel like I have been empowered to change the world.”

While the central African country continues to heal and rebuild itself with signs of rapid economic development, programmes such as those offered by Carnegie Mellon’s Africa campus are critical to transform the young, vibrant economy into a regional hub.

It intends to become a middle-income country by 2020, improving competitiveness while ensuring unity and inclusive growth and development.

“Rwanda’s vision for developing ICT as a pillar of its economy and the evidence of its commitment through the development of the necessary infrastructure and attractive business climate were well aligned with Carnegie Mellon University’s interest in establishing programmes that will have significant global impact,” said Krogh.

The university and government are working to create a technology and engineering hub that will drive investment in the ICT sector across East Africa.
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