Alumnus takes students into Africa

Melvin Cox's Focus on Africa class has taken more than a dozen students to the continent over the past two years, showing another side of Africa—one that is multicultural, with thriving cities and economic opportunities.

Going to Africa expands students’ worlds in ways that are still evolving, says Focus on Africa instructor Melvin Cox (Merrill '73, communications). (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Growing up in Oakland, Calif., Thomas Logwood never dreamed he would visit Africa.

But there he was, a 19-year-old UC Santa Cruz student, standing in the South African prison that once held Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela and listening to a former inmate describe his own years of incarceration in the notorious Robben Island penitentiary.

The now-21-year-old Stevenson College student, who will graduate this year with a degree in sociology, said the visit was a life-changing experience and that he owes it all to a Merrill College alum who not only had a dream about giving students a chance to see the real Africa but also believed it was his duty to mentor a new generation.

“There were people who believed in me, people who made doors open for me,” says Melvin Cox, a 1973 graduate of UC Santa Cruz, whose Focus on Africa class has taken more than a dozen students to the continent over the past two years. “They were people who ran the race and, at the end of the lap, handed the baton to my generation. And now it’s my responsibility to get around the track and make a successful hand-off to the generation that is coming up.”

Cox, 65, who lives in Oakland, is a man with a resume that reflects the passions that drive his life. The son of middle-class parents, he graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in communications. He then landed a job as a television director for a minority-focused news show at a public television station in San Mateo—despite the fact, he says, he had zero directing experience outside of the classroom.

From there, he worked in public relations and as a substitute teacher. A job as a data analyst at a San Francisco litigation-support firm segued into work as a technical support engineer at a software services company. When he lost his job during the tech bust of 2002 and became a caretaker for his mother, who died at the age of 103, he turned his attention to his twin passions: horses and Africa.

His love of horses, first nurtured when his grandmother gave the 10-year-old riding lessons at a school run by an African American rodeo rider and producer named Thyrl Latting, took him around the world. He visited places like the Heilan International Equestrian Club in China and the Nairobi Polo Club. He also made documentaries about the Badminton Horse Trials in England and the Aachen Horse Show in Germany.

At the same time, he also turned his attention, and camera, to Africa, a continent he first explored in 1987. He became a co-founder of the AFRICAN CONNECTIONS Research and Education Fund.

“There is a level of ignorance about Africa that is common in America,” Cox says by telephone from his Oakland home. People believe Africa to be this war-torn and disease-wracked continent filled with poor people instead of a place with thriving cities and economic opportunities, he says. He set out to show another side of Africa.

Linking up with Merrill College Provost Elizabeth Abrams and Smith Renaissance Society founder Bill Dickinson, Cox launched the yearlong, independent-study class, Focus on Africa. Some $40,000 was raised from donations to the campus, allowing 11 students to travel to London, Cape Town, and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania in 2015.

The trip, he says, “expanded students’ worlds in ways that are still evolving. We saw things that you don’t hear about in this country. We saw the reality in Africa that not everyone is poor, not every situation is hopeless. We saw a reality that is very multiethnic and multicultural.”

This spring, the class will examine Kenya and the run-up to its August elections. He also hopes to take five more students to the continent with visits to Ghana, Ethiopia, and Kenya.

“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.,” said Merrill Provost Abrams in a 2015 article about the class. “I’m delighted to be able to support students in fulfilling that vision.”