Clogging the Drain

Some American universities have partnerships that seek to stop brain drain and educate future leaders in the developing world.

February 23, 2012

WASHINGTON -- In an effort to combat the longstanding one-way flow of talented intellectuals out of the developing world, American universities are partnering with foreign institutions to train students to improve conditions in their home countries.

Paloma Mohamed saw the effects of “brain drain” when she returned to the University of Guyana to lead its communications studies center a few years ago after attending graduate school at Harvard University and the University of the West Indies. One of the center’s two faculty members had left for Britain, leaving 60 students to wait two years to graduate because there was no one to teach upper-level courses.

A South American nation bordering the Caribbean Sea, Guyana is roughly the size of South Dakota in terms of both land area and population.

Mohamed, who had promised she would one day return to teach in her native country, was charged with revitalizing a center using a 40-year-old curriculum and textbooks older than she was.

The foundering communications center at the national university underscored large-scale ineptitude in the country’s news media, where much of the nightly broadcasts were pirated and the rest looked amateurish.

Long interested in efforts to engage with his native Guyana, Ohio University communications professor Vibert Cambridge saw Mohamed's attempts to grow the national university's communications center as a natural opportunity for collaboration. Competing against four other American universities, Cambridge won a $300,000 grant through Higher Education for Development with funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Mohamed redesigned the center’s curriculum, welcomed guest instructors from Ohio and sent her own faculty members to earn master’s degrees in Ohio with the understanding they’d return to the University of Guyana for at least five years. Ohio faculty concentrated their research on Guyana and graduate students gained teaching experience in the country.

Now enrollment is booming, and students are leaving the University of Guyana with the skills to work in the country’s media or attend graduate school.

But Cambridge, who is Guyanese-American, insists the benefits work both ways. Speaking with Mohamed on Wednesday at the Association of International Education Administrators conference, Cambridge said he was able to conduct field research for an upcoming book as part of the partnership and his students were able to learn about issues facing communicators in developing nations.

The project’s viability, Cambridge said, was rooted in that mutual benefit. The partnership allowed the South American university to grow while the U.S. institution offered new opportunities to its faculty and students.

Cambridge attributes that success to honest intentions, a clear agreement on how resources would be divided and his ties to both Mohamed (he served on her dissertation committee) and his homeland.

The Ohio-Guyana partnership is a departure from the trend of Western universities siphoning off a developing nation’s brightest minds. While those individuals might send money back or focus their research on their homeland, Mohamed said it perpetuates a gap in the educational system when no one is left to teach the next generation.

Mohamed said she is one of 10 Ph.Ds. among 300 University of Guyana instructors. Many students leave home because they can’t pursue an advanced degree in their own country, then never return.

To that end, Mohamed is working to offer a master’s degree in communication at her center and Cornell University gave graduate degrees to Ethiopian students working on water issues in their own country.

Cornell awarded 34 graduate degrees in integrated watershed management through a partnership with Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia. The courses were taught by Cornell faculty members and the degrees were the same a student would earn in New York, though the coursework was done entirely in East Africa.

Of the 34 students who earned the credential, 32 stayed home to work on managing the country’s water system. Most are either pursuing doctorates, teaching college classes or working with NGOs.

Bringing top-flight American programs and instructors to students elsewhere, Cornell engineering professor Tammo Steenhuis said, seems to decrease students' desire to move overseas. Cornell’s role in the program is now largely over, and degrees in the program are now awarded by Bahir Dar. But the goal – to create a new cadre of highly trained watershed scientists working to improve access to water in Ethiopia – seems to have been met.

Ohio has seen similar results in Guyana, and is now developing partnerships between the two universities’ medical, fine arts and engineering programs.

“You have to cultivate relationships,” Cambridge said. “For us, it was a wonderfully rich and empowering reciprocal engagement.”


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