Just yesterday my friend Fortidas Bakuza became Dr. Bakuza, and Tanzania will never be the same.
When I first met Fortidas back in 2009 we visited his office in Dar Es Salaam. A professor from our university had made the connection through a mutual colleague, and despite being strangers we were warmly received. He passionately shared the many challenges facing the Tanzanian education system and his hopes to strengthen and prioritize early childhood education. When we said our goodbyes we spoke of future opportunities to connect and promised to be in touch.
Flash forward five years, and to our celebratory dinner congratulating Fortidas on his monumental accomplishments. Not only did he complete his Doctorate and Master’s degrees in record time, he did so with a dedication, insistence on quality, and a gentle thoughtfulness that has impressed his professors, colleagues, and all with whom he’s interacted while in Buffalo.
As I reflect on the excitement and pride that I feel for Fortidas and his family, I can’t help contrasting it with my own PhD and my graduation that I never bothered attending. It’s not that I didn’t value my education, on the contrary, it is the core of who I am and what I offer. But unlike Fortidas, mine didn’t require direct sacrifice or hardship. Learning was what I loved to do, and my degree felt highly personal and not requiring any public celebration or ceremony.
But Fortidas’s education is something much different. He left his wife and young children, and his home, for three long years, working tirelessly to complete his degrees. His dissertation was not simply an exercise, but instead an offering to his country and its education system to help inform change, progress, and a path forward toward actualizing and leveraging the talent of their youth.
I know there are many other international students who make their way to Western colleges and universities, seeking knowledge, degrees, and better lives for themselves and their families. But as costs become even more prohibitive and obstacles for scholarships and support more daunting, these opportunities and their beneficiaries will continue to dwindle.
If we are serious about supporting community development and progress throughout the world- which I hope desperately that we are- we must continue to bring the benefits of education to those who seek to maximize its reach. And while intensive on-site programs, such as Fortidas’s course of study, offer extensive advantages and opportunities for students from developing regions, they are neither sustainable nor scalable in the largest sense.
Luckily, the burgeoning world of technology and distance education offer unending possibilities for students and communities to learn, share, and innovate while at the same time addressing the specific contextual challenges and opportunities that frame our realities. As Western university communities that enjoy bountiful resources, expertise, and capacity we stand to partner and offer support in new and important ways.
But as we have learned through BTEP (Buffalo Tanzania Education Project), these opportunities are based largely on our willingness to connect and form meaningful relationships built on mutual respect and understanding.
And as my friend Fortidas prepares to return home to his family and the new opportunities that await him, I can’t help feeling as though his departure is actually just the beginning of the next stage of our collaboration and friendship. And I feel blessed to be part of something so much bigger than any one of us.