A long way from home

Facing culture shock, unusual food and tough academic challenges, McGill’s MasterCard Foundation Scholars have begun their journey towards becoming future leaders for Africa.

by Patrick Lejtenyi, BA’97, and Neale McDevitt

Someday, if everything goes according to plan, they’ll be part of a new generation of African leaders – energetic, worldly and determined to serve their countries. Having just survived their end-of-semester exams, though, these leaders of tomorrow wanted to party for a while.

McGill’s MasterCard Foundation Scholars recently celebrated the successful completion of their first year at the University. Assembled at a reception at Royal Victoria College, they shared munchies and hit the dance floor with some of the professors, staff and students who played crucial roles in supporting them through a challenging year.

“This has changed the course of my life in a great way,” says Njeri Muguthi, part of McGill’s initial cohort of 11 MasterCard Foundation Scholars. “I’m attending a wonderful university, meeting students from around the world and I’m building my network,” says the science student from Kenya.

“When I opened the email telling me I had been accepted, I started running around the house, screaming,” says fellow scholar Iptisam Sani, an engineering student from Ghana.

The Toronto-based MasterCard Foundation launched the scholars program in 2011, devoting $500 million to its goals. The program offers gifted young people from disadvantaged communities in Africa the opportunity to pursue a degree at a leading university. It’s an opportunity they almost certainly wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.

The universities partnering with the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program include Berkeley, Duke, Michigan State and Stanford in the U.S., the American University of Beirut’s Faculty of Health Sciences in Lebanon and the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

Last year, three Canadian universities were added to the mix – the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto and McGill. When she announced the program’s new Canadian partners, MasterCard Foundation president Reeta Roy took the opportunity to underline the program’s overall aim – to “develop next-generation leaders who will have a transformational impact in developing countries.”

A strange land

Biology professor Lauren Chapman (third from left) is the lead mentor for the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program at McGill. Photographed with her are MasterCard Foundation Scholars (left to right) Fauziat Serunjogi, Valary Malowa and Emefa Agbeshie. (Photo: Nicolas Morin)

One of those next-generation leaders has a question for Canadians. What’s with all the cheese?

“There’s cheese everywhere!” exclaims Muguthi. The 21-year-old Nairobi native doesn’t much like the stuff. North American food, in general, has taken some getting used to. “Everything tastes very different. I’m used to a tomato being this big, red juicy thing. But here, they have no natural taste inside.”

Muguthi was also surprised to see what women wore in Montreal. “That was a shocker. I arrived in late summer and I noticed that the way some women dressed was very revealing. I wouldn’t dress like that.” She pauses.  “But I think I understand why they do, after this winter!” Muguthi made the most of her first Canadian winter. She learned to skate and made her first snow angels.

In their four years at McGill, the scholars are expected to complete their degree requirements, take part in two internships in their home countries and eventually mentor the cohort that follows them. The program funds the summer internships after the scholars’ second and third years.

McGill will be welcoming 91 MasterCard Foundation Scholars to the University over a 10-year period. “These students are bringing a unique perspective,” says Dean of Students André Costopoulos, BA’92.  “They all have very different profiles and come from very different backgrounds and they bring an important diversity to McGill.”

Costopoulos says the students in the program impress him with their “tremendous courage and their willingness to go on this adventure. They’ve all gone through so much change and adjustment. They’re inquisitive and up for any challenge.”

Still, the adjustment process hasn’t always been easy.

Ignace Nikwivuze, an arts student from Rwanda, admits to feeling lonely when he first came to Montreal. “I’d spend three to four hours a night in my room watching movies because I had nowhere to go.”

“Those first few weeks were difficult,” Muguthi agrees. “I’m very close to my family and I had to come to terms with being so far away from [them]. I had been out of school for a year to take care of my baby sister and suddenly – bam – I had three assignments in my first week. I called my mom and said, ‘I want to come home.’”

The culture shock and the pressures associated with navigating so many life changes at once – particularly at such a young age – were easy to predict. That’s why an essential component of the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program is multifaceted mentoring.

“Each student is paired with a faculty member – a member of the department that is closely related to the student’s area of interest – who acts like an academic elder,” says biology professor Lauren Chapman, the program’s lead mentor at McGill. The mentors typically have some experience with Africa. Chapman, for instance, heads up a longstanding research program in Uganda that focuses on aquatic ecology and conservation.

“In Africa there is more of a disconnect between students and professors,” says Andrew Biteen, the program’s manager at McGill. “Professors are more revered there.”

Chapman says the program’s students view the less rigid, more easy-going environment in North American universities as a welcome change. “They seem very happy and very interested in the less formal atmosphere, where they are free to discuss subjects with their professors and ask questions of their [teaching assistants].”

A supportive network

MasterCard Foundation Scholar Diana Matabwa knows she can count on her mentor and fellow McGill student Kendra Hefti-Rossier for all kinds of support. (Photo: Nicolas Morin)

On a more personal level, the program’s students are matched with peer mentors—fellow McGill students, usually in their third or fourth year, with whom they meet regularly to discuss both academics and personal issues. “They understand what it’s like to be a McGill student,” says Chapman, “so they provide invaluable peer-to-peer advice.”

Nabil Zoldjalali is one of the mentors. The third-year electrical engineering student is from Saudi Arabia, and is familiar with the sense of bewilderment that greets students from different cultures when they arrive at McGill.

“Many of [the program’s] students went to small schools, where they would breeze through,” says Zoldjalali. “So for these scholars, we have to set expectations on how hard it is going to be.”

“The workload is challenging,” says Muguthi. “School gets serious so quickly. It takes some time to understand how the system works.”

That thought is echoed by Sani. “I didn’t think the workload would be this much. I was misinformed there!” she laughs. “I’m getting used to it. But sometimes I think there is a false sense of security—there were times when I thought I was handling it alright, and then I realized I wasn’t.”

While the peer mentors perform an essential role in warning the scholars of some of the academic challenges they’ll have to face, their most important contributions may have little to do with school work at all.

Remembering how homesick she was in September, Mughuthi credits the peer mentors with offering her friendship when she needed it most.

“It’s hard when you feel like you’re all alone, but my peer mentors [arts student Kimber Bialik and science student Anand Berry] helped pick me up. They took me out on some outings and we had fun. It gave me a much-needed break from some of the pressure and all the assignments. It’s nice to know there are people looking out for you.”

Kate Gong, a fourth-year physiology and anthropology student from Winnipeg, is one of the program’s peer mentors. She decided to become involved after spending a semester in east Africa last year. Being a mentor, she says, “gives me a chance to stay connected to that part of the world.”

Gong says the relationships between the program’s students and the peer mentors quickly became less formal. “Now we just hang out,” she says. “We have dinner together, go for coffee, go shopping. On my birthday, they were at an event and stopped everything to call me and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ on the phone. They’re my friends and they support me as much as I support them.”

Zoldjalali says he noticed a change in the scholars during their second semester at McGill. They’re more confident now, more relaxed. Their social circles have expanded and they’re more involved in extracurricular activities at the University.

Nikwivuze, for instance, collaborated with fellow students Jackie Bagwiza Uwizeyimana (also a MasterCard Foundation Scholar) and Eric Moses Gashirabake to organize a candlelight vigil at McGill in memory of the victims of the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

Zoldjalali believes the scholars come across as deceivingly carefree. They “seem very calm and relaxed, they’re always thankful and they’re always smiling,” he says. “But they have a sense of purpose. They know that they are going to go back to help their country advance.”

Biteen notes that an essential part of the selection process for the scholars involves writing an essay that demonstrates their leadership potential and their desire to contribute to their communities in the future.

He says the scholars are fully aware that they’ve been given an enormous opportunity. They don’t take it for granted. Sani agrees. “This has opened me up to the rest of the world,” she says. “I’m discovering things every day.”

Patrick Lejtenyi is a Montreal-based writer and radio reporter. His work has appeared in various websites and publications including the Montreal Gazette, the Montreal Mirror and VICE.com. Neale McDevitt is the editor of the McGill Reporter, where portions of this story originally appeared.

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