Students to document, share trip to World Economic Forum on Africa

"Focus on Africa," taught by documentary filmmaker Melvin Cox (Merrill, '73), has been offered through Merrill College.

After months of studying Africa in a classroom, a dozen UC Santa Cruz students are headed to the continent to produce a documentary and attend the 2015 World Economic Forum on Africa.

"Focus on Africa," taught by documentary filmmaker Melvin Cox (Merrill, '73), has been offered through Merrill College. Cox is discussing Africa's current affairs with students and teaching them about methods to document the forum, June 3 to 5 in Cape Town.

Cox and college Provost Elizabeth Abrams developed the course to help students understand Africa in a more meaningful way before attending the World Economic Forum. The course is also a step toward re-establishing the college's historic ties to Africa, and to reinforcing Merrill's commitment to experiential education.

"This class meets Merrill's longstanding commitment to having students know the world around them and experience it, a vision embraced by founding provost Philip Bell and shared by benefactor Charles E. Merrill, Jr.," Abrams said. "I'm delighted to be able to support students in fulfilling that vision."

"We are greatly energized by the enthusiastic support the program has received - from students, faculty, the Merrill College administration and some rather incredible donors," Cox said. "The potential impact extends far beyond the UCSC campus."

Cox has produced many programs on Africa, as well as a documentary on J. Herman Blake, who came to UC Santa Cruz in 1966 as an assistant professor of sociology. He was the first African American on the faculty and also served as the Founding Provost of Oakes College.

Lisa Hickman, a senior with Merrill College majoring in art and history of art and visual culture, was drawn to the class by the opportunity to learn about Africa. Hickman said she uses photography as a way to expose stereotypes and saw the class and trip as way to channel her art to portray the continent in ways that challenge people's beliefs.

"This is the direction I'm supposed to go," Hickman said. "It's creating a greater purpose for myself. It's important for people to travel and see the world."

Next fall, Hickman will be spending the fall in Argentina learning two year's worth of Spanish in one quarter. A senior, she's planning to pursue a Ph.D. in visual studies.

Sterling Scott, a second year student studying human biology in College 8, decided to take the class after learning about it through the campus's African/Black Student Alliance (A/BSA).

"It didn't exactly fit with my major, but I said why not," Scott said. "I've always wanted to go to Africa, and health care does play a role in economics."

Scott sees the trip as a project of self-exploration, traveling to a place where he has connections. He hopes he'll return to the United States knowing more about himself.

Jonathan Fu, a fourth year Merrill College student majoring in politics and legal studies, was referred to the program by Abrams.

Fu, who spent the fall quarter in Israel, said visiting a country in person and being able to connect with people is an experience that can't be replaced by reading history books or news articles. Conflicts and issues also become much more nuanced.

"Traveling brings a humanity that's often lost when you read about these countries from a detached point of view," Fu said. "Any opportunity to travel outside the United States and learn is something you need to take advantage of."

Students have been preparing for the trip by conducting preliminary research on topics that will be on display at the forum, such as public health priorities, African media and technology initiatives, and ongoing infrastructure projects, including renewable energy research in South Africa and the building of a standard gauge rail line in Kenya. They've also been preparing the scripts, shooting plans and storyboards that will guide their work at the forum. The group of students will be taking the trip through the generous support of donors.

Scott and Fu, like the other students in the class, will also share the experience with their family and community, further educating people about the continent, its success and its challenges.

In fact, the class is helping re-establish the college's historic connections to Africa. For example, several former Merrill provosts and other founding faculty had scholarly and teaching connections to Africa, and Abdu B.K. Kasozi, who earned his Ph.D. from UC Santa Cruz in 1974, served as the executive director for Uganda's National Council for Higher Education.

"With this class," Cox said, "we are trying to rekindle the fire and reignite interest in Africa."