When the Class of 2017 arrives on campus this fall, there will be a unique group of students among them. Five students from sub-Saharan Africa will join Stanford as the inaugural class of MasterCard Foundation Scholars, receiving full financial aid through the MasterCard Foundation.
Though the Foundation was established through funding from MasterCard Worldwide, it remains an independent organization that, according to Director of Financial Aid Karen Cooper, will disburse $500 million in an education initiative for sub-Saharan Africa.
As one of nine schools chosen to participate in the initiative, Stanford will receive a total of $6.5 million in funding– enough to support scholarships for five students each year for the next eight years.
“They’re thinking about the big picture,” Cooper said. “Their aim is to really make a difference on the continent, to create real leaders and real change.”
As part of that effort to make a broader difference, scholarship recipients commit to spending the summer between their junior and senior years working at an internship somewhere in Africa, supported by Foundation funding.
“One of their goals is that these students who are receiving this funding in the United States will eventually go back to Africa and make a real difference,” Cooper said.
The Foundation is also working with the African Leadership Academy in South Africa to help develop networks for post-graduation career opportunities.
Bridging a gap
According to Cooper, the Foundation first approached President John Hennessy in February 2012. Cooper subsequently worked with Dean of Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid Richard Shaw to put together a proposal, which was approved last June.
“They reached out to us because they saw a natural fit between a lot of their aims and what Stanford tries to do,” Cooper said. “And that’s what our proposal was really about– fleshing out why Stanford is such a great place for people to come here and learn how to be leaders, and the special opportunities they have here.”
Cooper noted the value offered by the program considering the lack of need-blind admission for international students.
“The admissions committee gets some instruction from us as to how many students from what parts of the world we have funding available for,” she said. “Over the last five to ten years, typically we’ve had three to five students in every freshman class who are from sub-Saharan Africa and are receiving financial aid.”
One aspect of the agreement with the MasterCard Foundation is that the funding be in addition to whatever Stanford was previously giving to students from the region.
“So now we really needed eight to 10 students from sub-Saharan Africa, so it was a pretty big increase,” Cooper said.
According to John Pearson, director of the Bechtel International Center, Stanford currently has 82 students from sub-Saharan Africa. The number of undergraduates from that total is in the “mid-thirties,” Pearson said.
Part of the grant from the MasterCard Foundation was designated to support Stanford’s recruitment efforts in the sub-Saharan region. Last fall, an admissions officer was able to use these funds to travel to Africa and connect with students.
“She was able to make contacts with high schools and meet actual prospective students in person and answer their questions,” Cooper said.
Stanford will now be able to fund a trip from the Office of Undergraduate Admission to Africa every year, as opposed to every five years or so as had been done in the past. Cooper said that future trips will ideally be able to target high schools often overlooked by admissions visits, including schools with high numbers of low-income students.
“We’re always looking for ways to reach out to the right people,” she said. “One of the goals with this program is to be able to reach out to students who might not have other opportunities without the scholarship.”
Pearson acknowledged the difficulty of expanding Stanford’s outreach in sub-Saharan Africa.
“The issue is, how do you communicate with these students,” he said. “How do they know about these opportunities? How do they take the SATs? I think it’s a slow process of building these networks.”
Both Cooper and Pearson agreed that even after the students arrive at Stanford, they are likely to face a unique set of challenges as they adjust to life on the Farm.
“These students are really coming from a different world in a lot of ways,” Cooper said. “There’s the typical [process of] international students getting acclimated to US culture, but these students are also coming from very low-income backgrounds.”
She noted that some of these students have grown up “in rural villages in Africa that don’t have electricity. They literally grew up in mud huts that families had built, doing subsistence farming to support themselves. So it is a huge transition to come to Stanford at that point.”
“It’s a long way to come,” Pearson agreed. “Stanford is a remarkably welcoming but affluent place. So it’s that sense of not just academic changes but broad culture shock about coming to an environment like this.”
Cooper and Pearson emphasized the variety of projects being put into motion to ensure as smooth a transition as possible, both for these students as well as for other low-income and international students.
“We’re working with various groups in Student Affairs and in [Student] Housing and Dining to make sure support systems are in place not just for the five MasterCard students but really for all of our international students who come here receiving aid,” Cooper said.
According to Pearson, their efforts will be helped by the designation of some Foundation funding to help provide a support system for students once they arrive in the United States.
Pearson attended a conference at Arizona State University last month with representatives from other universities participating in the program. Those schools include Arizona State, Michigan State, Duke and UC-Berkeley.
“[The conference] was really getting to the practicalities of learning from each other, sharing best practices,” Pearson said. “It was actually quite interesting, because what you realize is that every school is very different about how it structures itself, how students live, how they interact, how they form communities.”
According to Pearson, the various institutions will meet again in June to discuss data analysis.
“MasterCard really wants to show, at the end, that they’ve had some impact,” he said. “So they’re very much into data collection and analysis.”
Though the scholarship’s inaugural recipients have been chosen, Cooper declined to release their names by time of publication.