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Educating Sub-Saharan Africa; V. James Garofalo, Ph.D. ’61

Photo courtesy of Martha Speirs, AUN Library

Forty-six years ago, V. James Garofalo, Ph.D. ’61 taught secondary school in Nigeria as a Peace Corps volunteer. In May 2009, he will watch as some of the children and grandchildren of his former secondary students graduate from American University of Nigeria (AUN), where he has served as the founding academic vice president for the past four years.

In late 2004, after Garofalo retired as dean of the School of Education at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich., he signed a contract with American University to start the school in Nigeria. On what was once a semi-desert stretch of land in Yola, the capital of Adamawa, one of Nigeria’s 36 states, now stands a world class, private university with 17 buildings, nearly 1,000 students, 65 faculty, and 15 degree areas in three schools fully accredited by the National Universities Commission. The first class of 90 students will graduate in May 2009 with The Reverend Desmond Tutu as the commencement speaker.

American University of Nigeria was established in response to the high demand for “American-style” higher education in West Africa. Historically, because of the deteriorating public education system, West African families have sent their children to the United States to be educated.

“It was a very rewarding, frustration-filled, wonderful four years,” says Garofalo, whose wife Patricia was also a founding faculty member, teaching writing in the School of Arts and Sciences. Garofalo is proud of the university’s success, despite the many challenges founders of the institution faced.

What was the biggest challenge? “Nothing worked,” he says. With an inadequate water source, unreliable electricity, 100-to 110-degree heat, and no workforce to draw on, many were skeptical that the university would ever become a reality. “We worked 24/7 for two and a half years with very little downtime,” Garofalo says. “And there were times when we didn’t think we’d be as successful as we were.”

But in September 2005, the first class of 120 students began taking classes at the institution. It was a time Garofalo will never forget.

“My sister was dying, but she told me not to come home. She told me to put that money towards educating women, and I promised I’d do that.” Garofalo supported twin sisters Amina and Zainab, paying for one-third of their tuition each semester. Amina will graduate in May with a degree in information technology, and Zainab will complete her business administration course work in fall 2009.

The university’s success has been seen not only in its increasing enrollment, but in the preparedness of its students as well. In 2007, an AUN student took first place at a national mathematics competition sponsored by the Nigerian Ministry of Education. In 2008, AUN sent a team to the annual Model United Nations convention for the first time. “One of our female delegates was elected co-chair of the entire conference, a second female delegate was recognized as the outstanding female delegate of the conference, and the AUN team was recognized as the second-best delegation overall.”

While Garofalo says the list of student accomplishments goes on, he notes that the most accurate test of the quality of AUN’s education will be the performance of graduates in graduate school and the workplace.

Now that AUN is getting ready to graduate its first class, Garofalo says,“It’s my great hope that Africa will eventually be able to educate itself through its problems.”

– Jennifer Post Stoudt

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