Shortage of African Students Threatens Diversity

Simba Runyowa

This academic year, Oberlin College enrolled a total of 63 first-year international students. Of those 63, exactly one student was from the African continent, specifically Zimbabwe — that African student was me. If this trend persists, by the time I am a graduating senior, Oberlin College will have a grand total of precisely four African students on the entire campus.

Interestingly, the highest represented country was China, with the class of 2015 commanding a whopping 21 students from that country alone. This is obviously a suspicious and embarrassing statistic: How can students from one country alone so dramatically and conspicuously outnumber those from an entire continent? It is common knowledge that the primary reason colleges enroll international students in the first place is to create a microcosm of the world, with the end goal of simulating a global atmosphere that allows for people of different backgrounds to matriculate in an environment that maximizes exposure to cultures of the world.

The last time I was inclined to check, Africa was an increasingly crucial part of the world, never mind that it also happens to be the world’s second largest continent. To have only one African student is to make the implicit statement that African students add little value to the global discourse on campus and that just one of such students annually is quite sufficient to represent the viewpoints of a whole continent. I could spend the rest of my life rebutting that contention.

It may very well be the case that Oberlin does not receive as many applicants from Africa as from other regions of the world, and therefore admissions simply does not have access to a large crop of students from which to select potential students. It may also be argued that Oberlin simply does not appeal to African students — but I would call that an unlikely justification. Oberlin has a long and illustrious history of educating Africans, dating as far back as 1888, when Oberlin enrolled one of its first African students, John Langalibalele Dube. Dube went on to become an extremely crucial figure in African history, emerging as the founding president of the African National Congress in South Africa — the liberation party that years later under the auspices of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and others went on to dismantle apartheid. In recent times, Oberlin has continued to produce impressive African alumni, including internationally renowned activist Ishmael Beah, OC ’04. Oberlin even has a scholarship specifically set aside for Africans.

So what, then, is the cause of the woeful numbers of enrolled Africans at Oberlin? My most intelligent guess is that many African students who could potentially thrive at Oberlin may not have heard of Oberlin and what it offers, let alone its generous financial aid policy, because their socioeconomic backgrounds place them at an inherent disadvantage in accessing the technology needed to do in-depth research about colleges like Oberlin and the application processes they entail. The onus thus falls on the admissions team to ensure that information is disseminated transparently to prospective students from all regions to ensure that no students are left behind for a lack of information.

The international admissions website obviates the fact that African students are not being recruited with as robust a fervor as students from other regions in the world. It indicates that while Oberlin does indeed conduct recruiting sessions in Africa, many of these are confined to high schools located in such places as Sandton in Johannesburg, South Africa, a fact that left me almost completely dry-mouthed with disappointment. Having lived in Johannesburg for a short time and having visited the city many times, I can assure you that Sandton is the number one undisputed mecca of unbridled excess on the entire African continent. According to the website, the schools frequented by Oberlin are stuffed to capacity with some of the continent’s wealthiest offspring, who lack nothing by way of resources and could easily Google Oberlin if they wanted to (or simply command one of their butlers take care of it).

Furthermore, whizzing in and around Africa’s poshest leafy suburbs can hardly be passed off as a serious exercise in soliciting diversity — and this is before you consider that South Africans in particular have little incentive to study abroad, given the fact that South Africa is home to Africa’s highest-quality universities and state-subsidized tuition. It is the students in remote villages and underserved urban townships that are perhaps in most dire need of Oberlin’s recruitment efforts, and for this reason I believe a re-examination of the types of schools and countries frequented by admissions may be in order.

The African Students Association and everything it embodies in the form of African culture, languages and ethos, are being gradually choked to an inevitable death, largely facilitated by admissions policies that place African students at a disadvantage in the admissions process. As we celebrate Black History Month, it is imperative that the Oberlin community take an honest look at the history of this great institution and make a concerted effort not merely to tout but to commit seriously to preserving the fundamentals of inclusion and diversity that set this historic college apart from all others.