When Papa M. Ndiaye '88 first came to Harvard from Senegal, he felt so isolated that he sought fellow Africans among the strangers in Harvard Square. "You come here, and you're stranded," he says.
For Ndiaye and the 13 other African students, Harvard College can be lonely and frustrating. Although the continent has more than 30 countries, Westerners tend to lump all of them, from Angola to Zimbabwe into one cultural mass. African students say they sometimes face blatant ignorance of their home countries and Africa as a whole. Dorkus K. Mamboleo '91 says a classmate asked her which part of the United States had a town called Kenya. And Ndiaye says fellow students have asked him, "Do you live in a hut?" and "Do your cousins look like the people on TV from Ethiopia?"
African students at Harvard fit no single pattern in their activities and concentrations, but they share many characteristics. Many bridged the gap between Harvard and their homes by studying at secondary schools in Europe--usually in Britain, says Ndiaye, who studied for two years in South Wales. "Most of the students come from the upper strata of African society," he says.
In addition, all must adjust to a new culture, a new climate and a new bureaucracy without much guidance from the University.
In an effort to spare others the loneliness he felt his freshman year, Ndiaye helped to revitalize the Harvard African Students Association (HASA) and is now its president. He said the group works "to provide a voice from Africa on issues and to provide a forum for people from Africa... to have a sense of community."
African Studies Offerings Limited
Harvard can be particularly alienating for African students because the curriculum offers few courses about African history and culture. "As a student, it is very difficult for me to learn about Africa," Ndiaye says. In his field of concentration, economics, he said "you end up studying everywhere but Africa. That's not much fun when you miss home and you want to learn about home or other countries in Africa."
"Harvard does not have a very strong commitment to African studies," says Nathan I. Huggins, W.E.B. DuBois Professor of History and of Afro-American Studies. Harvard has only one professor teaching African history, Huggins says, adding that other area schools such as Boston University have devoted more effort to the study of Africa.
Since the death of Mellon Professor K. Onwuka Dike more than five years ago, Harvard has lacked a tenured professor of African studies. Associate Professor of History H. Leroy Vail is the University's only remaining expert on Africa.
The Harvard Foundation, which is devoted to improving race relations on campus, began to address this problem last year when it set up a student-faculty committee which focuses on academics, including the paucity of ethnic course offerings.
The worst part of being an African at Harvard, students say, is the University's failure to provide adequate guidance and support. The Harvard International Office assists students with technical problems like visa applications, but several African students say they wish it did more. "The Harvard International Office tries to provide support for the foreign students here, but it's kind of limited," says Patrice R. Backer, who came here via Haiti from Congo. "There is a lack of a network," he says.
Seamus P. Malin '62, director of the International Office, says he recognizes that the office could do more. "We should be looking at international students differently and should be enhancing our efforts in this office to support foreign students. This is one of the issues that I am very concerned about," he says.
However, Malin says the International Office's main role should be to encourage the development of peer groups, like HASA, for foreign students. While the office itself handles paperwork problems, the student groups should bring foreign students together to provide a sense of community, he says.
Despite transition periods to Western ways in Europe or elsewhere, African students must also face the minor adjustment problems familiar to most other Harvard neophytes. The food and the weather present the most obvious changes.
"I was impressed by the dining hall service at first, then I became a real Harvard student, and that includes being cynical about everything, including the food," Ndiaye says.