A model to replicate: Global collaboration through scholarships


Kelly Jasper

May’s commencement ceremony, like most, marked a beginning and an end. The final cohort of undergraduate Mastercard Foundation Scholars, and the first cohort of graduate scholars, both graduated from Arizona State University.

“This was a transformative moment for us and for our scholars,” says Tamara Webb, director of International Education in the Center for Advanced Studies in Global Education at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and director for the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at ASU. “They’re graduating, but it’s so much more than that.”

Housed and managed by MLFTC, the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program is a comprehensive scholarship program to educate and prepare young people particularly from Africa to lead change in their communities.

“These are exceptional students who have faced barriers to continuing their education,” says Webb. “It’s a competitive process. They’re being offered a full ride, a flight, housing and healthcare. It requires a stellar academic portfolio, demonstrated leadership skills and experience, and a commitment to give back and serve the world and their communities."

Funded by a $27.5 million grant, the first phase (2012–19) of the program supported 120 scholars from 20 countries completing undergraduate degrees in more than 70 majors. Now, in its second phase (2017–22), a $21.9 million grant allows an additional 150 scholars to complete accelerated master’s degrees in select fields benefiting economic growth and social transformation in their home countries and communities. 

Into the cell graphic

The final cohort of undergraduate Mastercard Foundation Scholars, and the first cohort of graduate scholars, both graduated from Arizona State University in May.

Funded by a $27.5 million grant, the first phase of the program supported 120 scholars from 20 countries.

Now, in its second phase, a $21.9 million grant allows an additional 150 scholars to complete accelerated master’s degrees.

The goal? Helping more young people from Africa gain the education and resources they need to lead change in their communities.

“We learned a lot from Phase I,” Webb says. “Now we’re learning how to build more on institutional partnerships, which is the focus of the second iteration.”

Phase II, Strengthening Institutional Linkages, supports faculty exchange and collaborative research alongside students pursuing degrees. The scholars are enrolled in ASU’s International Accelerated Degree Programs in a 3+1+1 format, an accessible pathway to earning master’s degrees for students from two Ghanaian universities, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) and Ashesi University. The nine degrees offered  including mechanical and biomedical engineering, global logistics and supply chain management — were selected to address skill gaps in Ghana’s rapidly expanding economy. For each, scholars complete three years at their home universities before starting a two-year program at ASU to complete both their bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Meanwhile, cohorts of faculty members from the Ghanaian universities travel to Arizona for development seminars. Every year, ASU faculty members also go to Ghana for symposiums on innovative teaching practices and research initiatives developed through their international collaboration. 

'Opening doors across ASU and the world'

In June, a delegation of five faculty members and deans visited the two partner institutions in Ghana. 

ASU faculty and dean delegation to Ghana

The delegation of ASU faculty, staff and deans who traveled to Ghana in June

“We had a workshop in which we got all the faculty in the room from the three universities to brainstorm research projects,” says Adegoke Oke, associate professor of supply chain management in the W. P. Carey School of Business. “That led to about seven different groups with seven different research projects, on topics like energy, sustainability and education in Africa. We're all excited about the potential outcomes of these projects. It’s sowing the seeds of ideas we’re all interested in.”

Patrick Phelanprofessor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and assistant dean of graduate programs, collaborated with faculty on environmentally friendly building materials.

“We have this technology, like a brick that would go into a wall in a house, that generates electricity because of the temperature difference from the inside to the outside. It has applications not only in the U.S. but Ghana and worldwide,” he says. “Working with Ghanaian faculty is an accelerator. It gives us a better appreciation for the opportunities and problems in other parts of the world. We’re now trying to publish together and write proposals together.”

Abdelrahman Shuaib, professor of practice in mechanical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, collaborated with Ghanaian faculty on the design and teaching of capstone courses. 

“This opened real collaboration, not only with us and Ghana, but between engineering, teaching, and business schools at ASU. MLFTC hosting this collaboration is opening doors across ASU and around the world,” he says. “We may have started with 150 students coming here, but what is more important is the ongoing collaboration in faculty development that benefits students and faculty in Ghana. They’re building their capacity so everyone benefits. ASU, KNUST and Ashesi faculty members are working together and learning from each other.”

Faculty members at ASU also benefit, says James Abbas, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the Fulton schools, through conversations and experience that introduces a new dimension to their technical expertise.

“On the research side, certainly in engineering and in business, people are interested in applications that are global,” he says. “I can make a medical device that’s very expensive and may be used in large hospitals in Phoenix, but if it isn’t affordable, it won’t be used in many parts of the world and the number of people who will be impacted is much smaller. So how do we design technology that’s useful, affordable and accessible around the world? Having collaborators that are not only technical experts but are also embedded in different cultural contexts and environments is crucial to that process.”

‘I have so many options after this’

The diversity of experience present in faculty exchanges also benefits the scholars, adds Abbas, who has served as a faculty mentor for scholars studying biomedical engineering.

“A lot of the students are at a stage in their undergraduate career, like our students at ASU, where they’re trying to understand the field they’re in and the career options available to them,” he says. “They’re learning about the field in a very similar way, but with less exposure to things like the medical device industry and biomedical research. They have questions, and they’re so focused: ‘How do I get into a research lab? What classes are the most beneficial to pursue?’”

Ruby Obeng was one of those students. She interviewed with Abbas in Ghana to become part of the first cohort of graduate students in Phase II of the Mastercard program. Of the 100 scholars admitted to the second iteration so far, 23 are women in STEM fields.

Ruby Obeng, Mastercard Foundation scholar alum

Ruby Obeng, fourth from left, is pursuing her PhD in biomedical engineering after graduating with her master's degree as a Mastercard Foundation Scholar.

“When I started studying biomedical engineering in Ghana, the most common areas to venture into were bio-instrumentation and prosthetics and orthotics. I had no interest in prosthetics and orthotics because I thought I wasn’t going to get a good job. I felt that area was really neglected,” she says. “Over the course of my studies, I refined my purpose and sought to meet needs that hadn’t been met. I wanted to venture into these areas even when they didn’t look attractive. I began developing an interest in rehabilitation engineering, and that opened doors for me.”

Before Obeng left for college, her grandmother had a stroke.

“She was paralyzed. It was bad. I had to watch over her and we couldn’t afford expensive care to help her become more independent. Little did I know I was developing an interest in that,” she says. 

The three rounds of interviews to become a Mastercard Foundation Scholar were tough. But when she interviewed with ASU faculty members for her scholarship, Obeng was encouraged by their commitment to the program’s “give-back ethos.”

“They were looking for someone who is a team player, open to all sorts of cultures and ready to learn from others,” she says. “It was more than academics. You had to be someone who is passionate about society and giving back in whatever way you can.”

After graduating in May, Obeng is now working to complete her PhD in biomedical engineering at ASU. Her research focuses on fall detection and prevention for stroke survivors.

“I have so many options after this. I’ve been exposed to something here I can learn from, with more variety. Because biomedical engineering is more established, because the field is broader, I see new paths I couldn’t see. This has been my opportunity and I want to make the best of it.”

‘A program of pioneers’

The program equips students who have the desire to give back with the skills and resources they’ll need to positively affect their communities, says Webb.

In addition to their studies, professional and leadership development and internships, Mastercard Foundation Scholars at ASU have led and participated in thousands of hours of community service. Many have also developed social ventures through Venture Devil awards, a program from the office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at ASU, and The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Entrepreneurship Fund, a $50,000 grant allocated to ASU to provide funding to scholars and alumni who have sustainable and scalable business ideas with social impact.

"Mastercard has been iterating its approach to building student leaders and sustainable initiatives in the communities these students come from. They created this year a social venture fund so students can compete for start-up funding for initiatives they have,” says Webb. “It’s one significant way to equip young people with the tools, resources and connections they need to transform their communities.”

Adnan Abdullahi, Mastercard Foundation Scholar alum

Adnan Abdullahi graduated in May with the first cohort of Phase II scholars and is now pursuing his PhD in mechanical engineering.

ASU’s Mastercard Foundation Scholars are harnessing nanotechnology to produce environmentally friendly fertilizer, launching foundations to support vulnerable children through school sponsorships and providing training to equip entire communities with business management skills.

The scholars’ innovative social ventures have the potential to change the world, says Adnan Abdullahi, who graduated in May with the first cohort of Phase II scholars and is now pursuing his PhD in mechanical engineering at ASU. 

“The connections that I’ve made have led to meaningful opportunities. I and two other scholars started a business back home,” says Abdullahi. “We’ve identified a subset of the market in Ghana and feel we can enter this space by venturing into fresh produce using a greenhouse system to grow year-round. We’re cutting down cost by optimizing the growing process and marketing in diverse ways. We are about sustainable growth and this is reflected in our lean business plan, which earned us funding, but we are also about giving back to the community.”

Called Fresh Greens, the company just secured land and is buying its first greenhouse, funded by Venture Devils and other awards. The company will serve as a center to train young Ghanaians with skills they’ll need to venture into agriculture and become “Agri-preneurs.”

“This [Mastercard] program is a program of pioneers,” he says. “In my cohort, there are so many individuals starting businesses in Ghana and Arizona. There’s a fiery spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation. It’s driven by the opportunity to come here and see drastic differences in the way things are done in America and at home. It gets you thinking differently. You think transformatively, and when you have a cohort of problem-solvers and intellectuals interacting with each other, an explosion of ideas is the outcome. The difference in cultures sparks innovation.”

A model to replicate

Students’ successes demonstrate that the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program isn’t just “any student exchange,” says Enrique Vivoni, associate dean for ASU’s Graduate College.

"What makes this unique is the organization and support that gives these students every possible opportunity to succeed,” he says. “At ASU, we recruit more than 4,000 international students at the graduate level. Here we have a case where there are Ghanaians who are very much supported and treated as a cohort, which increases the social bond, both in their cohort and across their cohorts, with a support team to help them navigate a very significant change.

“These folks are coming from another continent, another climate, from another development environment. These are very bright students and they're coming to a place where everything around them has changed. The support makes it so they flourish in the transition. They become our top students. It's very much a model that can be replicated for other countries in Africa and other countries that are underrepresented in the U.S. educational system.”

Webb hopes other institutions will benefit. “We want people to see what we're doing and be inspired. We're learning that, in order to really impact capacity building and sustainable development around the world, there needs to be partnerships with local institutions on the continent. It's a shift from providing individuals with scholarships on a continent to working with institutions in communities,” she says. 

“This next iteration is more country-focused, with further partnership opportunities across the ASU enterprise, in engineering and business and technology. I can see us helping to collaboratively build curriculum and academic programs, creating alliances that allow us to supplement what they need and train them in the process.

“But it's not a one-way conversation,” Webb says. “It's global collaboration."

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