We Need Engineering Study Abroad In Africa and Latin America

Mental Latitude Imperialism. I first heard this phrase listening to a TED Talk by Bright Simons, a Ghanaian social innovator, writer, and entrepreneur. In his talk, he discusses that the latitude on which you were born determines whether or not your good idea scales — Mental Latitude Imperialism. I think a way to combat this is for a greater number of Western universities to open up study abroad programs in Africa and Latin America. Academic collaboration needs to include universities in those two regions.

Bright Simons’ TED Talk: To help solve global problems, look to developing countries

Recently, I finished reading China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, so I’ve been thinking a lot about neocolonialism. In the book, Howard French documents his interactions with Chinese migrants in Central, East, South, and West Africa (Yes, Africa isn’t one big monolith). It’s estimated that roughly one million Chinese migrants now live in Africa. It’s important to note, some predictions have China soon becoming the world’s largest economy, while many of the world’s fastest growing economies are currently in Africa. Furthermore, by 2050 more than half the world’s population growth will be in Africa. So this begs the question, why don’t we learn about any of these changing social and economic dynamics in engineering education?

Jumia Technologies, e-commerce platform in Africa

In another article I wrote, We Need People-Centered Engineering, I discuss how in UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering, we need more liberal arts courses. Hopefully, this has become clear with the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has devastated Black and Brown communities. With more liberal arts courses, engineering students can become more familiar with the historical, social, political, and economic contexts of large infrastructure projects and emerging technologies. Perhaps, with a more diverse education we would’ve been better positioned to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 in Black and Brown communities.

We need a people-centered engineering approach on an international scale too, though. Climate change, food scarcity, and access to financial services are global problems, so we should look and interact globally for solutions. These challenges are already being addressed by innovators in Africa. As previously mentioned, Africa’s economic weight is growing. Across the continent, there are more than 600 active tech hubs. With Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, and Kenya leading the way, they have been described as an “innovation quadrangle.” In thinking about this, why aren’t there any study abroad opportunities for UT engineering students in Africa?

By offering study abroad opportunities in Africa, we’ll become more globally minded engineers and UT will increase its impact. Of the top 20 universities in Africa, at least 10 use English as the language of instruction. Every undergraduate major within Cockrell except Computational Engineering is offered as a course of study at, at least one top 20 university in Africa. If the University of Witwatersrand is good enough for Nelson Mandela, it’s good enough for any UT student.

Nelson Mandela as a student at Witwatersrand University

We need to expand our study abroad opportunities in Latin America as well. Brazil, for example, is the 9th largest economy in the world. It has roughly 200 million people and a large portion of the Amazon. About a year ago, Brazil and Mexico (the other Latin American economic powerhouse) signed an automotive free trade agreement. The Panama Canal, an engineering feat in and of itself, enables trade throughout the world. Tech hubs are springing up across the region. Despite UT having the best Latin American Studies program in the nation, Cockrell engineering study abroad opportunities in Latin America are limited.

The writers of history have influenced the lens in which we view Africa and Latin America. However, if we truly value academic collaboration across the world, yet ignore great ideas that originate in Africa and Latin America then we are passively participating in Mental Latitude Imperialism. Look. I understand that right now we’re in the midst of a pandemic that needs to be addressed. But when a degree of normalcy does resume, can we at least consider some improvements to our educational, social, and economic systems? If we do, maybe we’ll be able to think about additional important questions: What is neocolonialism? What are economic development similarities between Sub Saharan Africa and Latin America? If Latin America and Sub Saharan Africa pursued Doughnut Economics development, what might that look like?

Many of us have family and friends in Africa and Latin America. We care about the challenges faced in those regions of the world too and want to learn about them. It seems only right that our study abroad opportunities fully match our aspirations and interests as well.

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