A Bright Light

Margee M. Ensign describes how the American U. of Nigeria runs counter to many of the trends of American-style campuses outside the U.S.

August 7, 2012

"We saw a very bright, pulsating light on our usage map and decided to come to Northern Nigeria and investigate."

Last fall a Google team traveled from California to Yola, the home of the American University of Nigeria. At AUN we were surprised to learn that we were the source of the unusual bright light appearing on the Google usage map. Located in rural northeastern Nigeria, we are the only university in the country with 24/7 power and Internet. We have recently brought fiber optic to our community, are using e-books almost exclusively, and all of our faculty now have iPads.

What is an American university doing in Nigeria and how are we using that power and Internet?  First, some background.

AUN was founded by a man, Atiku Abubukar, who was orphaned at a very young age in a village close to Yola. At the dawn of Nigerian independence he experienced two sorts of education: British school teachers who told him to repeat after them -- and slapped his hands when he didn’t -- and American Peace Corps teachers who encouraged him to think for himself. Fast forward five decades and that young boy had become a very successful businessman, serving along the way as a  vice president of Nigeria. He has poured much of his fortune into the building and maintenance of AUN, seeking to bring his American Peace Corps experience to other young Africans. The Peace Corps recently honored him at their 50th anniversary last year, saying, “No business man in Africa has worked harder for democracy or contributed more to the progress of higher education than Atiku Abubukar.“

AUN is hardly the first American-style institution to open in the developing world in recent years. Overseas branch operations, not to mention for-profit institutions, can be lucrative, after all. Many of the branches are opening in countries with large populations of wealthy potential students, or with generous funding from host nations. Relatively few branches are focused on Africa, where the need is great.

The American University of Nigeria runs counter to these trends. While the American University in Washington assisted in the early years, and Tulane University is now our primary American partner, AUN is a private nonprofit Nigerian university, founded by a Nigerian to serve as an instrument of development and change for Nigeria. The choice of a U.S.-style organization and pedagogy was a Nigerian decision as the university’s founder and leadership sought the best way to hasten the development of the country.

What makes us unique is our strategic plan and mission. The mission of the American University of Nigeria is to be a "development university" — to use our advanced technology, infrastructure, and terrific international faculty to be the bright light for our 1,400 students, community, and country.  While most American universities in the U.S. now emphasize community service, we seem to be a pioneer in this effort in our region. Last year we designated specific projects as "AUN development projects." All students are now required to do community service. Base line data collection is almost completed for this year so that as we continue our work, we can know if we are having the impact and results we hoped for. This will allow us to continually modify our efforts based on this systematic and rigorous feedback.

My favorite memory of my first year as president was working with a group of students -- most from fairly affluent families -- cleaning up and painting a dilapidated rural school. A tall young man in a beautiful and expensive polo shirt, covered by paint and sweat at day’s end, asked, "Is this what you mean by community service?"  “Yes,” I replied, “This is an example.” 

“I love it!” he said.

Already several of our projects are showing great progress. A number of our students who were having reading problems themselves (not an uncommon problem in a country where students speak several dialects before they learn English) were taught by the principal of our K-12 school to teach literacy to young children in the community. Recently three principals from these schools, along with the village chiefs, local government heads, and religious leaders, arrived in my office. They told me that not only are their children coming back to school for English tutoring, but they are now bringing their parents to the after-school classes. Equally important, our own AUN students’ reading scores improved from being involved with this project.

Our challenge now is to share the advanced technology that we have with all our community’s teachers, students and families to help them connect to the world’s knowledge on the Internet.  In a part of the world growing as rapidly as Nigeria, faced with the challenges of few teachers and often-inadequate infrastructure, using technology is the only -- and the best -- method of education.

Perhaps our most important development initiative is our co-founding of the Adamawa Peace Council.

Last January, during nationwide strikes over removal of the fuel subsidy, our small town also experienced violence. This was unexpected: Yola is known countrywide as a place of harmony; it is half Christian and half Muslim, and those communities have lived side by side peacefully for generations. Since that time there have been other incidents, and now Boko Haram, based to the north of us, is closer then we would want. In response, AUN has spearheaded the Adamawa Peace Council, founded to ensure that people have accurate information and that the entire community and state focus on peace-building. The council is composed of the leading religious, business and educational leaders in our community. The group and regularly meets at AUN.

Since that first meeting we have started a newspaper -- The Peacemaker -- have a weekly TV show, are training unemployed youth at our IT Center, and are working with local schools to develop a peace curriculum.

In a decade, Nigeria, one of the world’s most important oil producers and the most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa, will be the fifth-largest country in the world. Its developmental challenges are daunting. But at AUN we share our founder’s dream that an American-style education and the young people who will benefit from it will have vital roles to play in the future of this country and of Africa. We believe that the Google map showing a bright pulsing light really does represent us in ways broader and deeper than just Internet usage.  


Margee M. Ensign is president of the American University of Nigeria.


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