Merrill College courses offer opportunity to learn about Africa, develop global connections

Photo of students outside gate
The inaugural cohort of students in the Focus on Africa course outside Buckinham Palace in 2015. (Photo courtesy of Mel Cox)
Mel Cox and Elizabeth Abrams
In collaboration with Merrill College Provost Elizabeth Abrams, left, Mel Cox will lead another Focus on Africa Global Classroom this summer which will include an in-depth study of the Kenya General Election slated for Aug. 9.

Melvin Cox traces his passion for Africa back to the late 1960s when he was one of the early students at Merrill College at the new UC Santa Cruz. He was surrounded by professors who were noted Africa scholars, including the late John Marcum. 

Now, Cox, a documentary filmmaker, is inspiring a new generation of students to take an interest in the continent by helping organize cultural exchanges through Merrill College. Merrill is offering two Global Classrooms – courses developed with the support of the Global Engagement division that involve online collaboration between students from UC Santa Cruz and the Co-Operative University of Kenya. Merrill is also organizing a faculty-led study abroad program in Africa in summer 2023.

Cox, who teaches the “Focus on Africa” Global Classroom and has taken students to Africa, said he is passionate about raising the profile of the continent in the psyche of the average American. 

“We want to recreate a constituency for Africa both on campus at UC Santa Cruz and in the home communities of the students who are participating,” he said. 

“Focus on Africa” is a two-credit course that is intended to equip students “with the skills and background necessary to be informed observers and chroniclers of current affairs on the African continent.” 

Cox has drawn on more than 30 years of contacts to put together the course and to develop the material. The online collaboration involving international students has been a godsend, he said. He hopes that alliances will be formed there that will last the students a lifetime. “If nothing else, these students will walk away with a much better understanding of how truly interconnected our world is,” he said. 

Jesus Membrillo Ortiz, a UC Santa Cruz student in “Focus on Africa,” said he has learned from the Kenyan students in the class that their experiences are similar to what he experienced as a child growing up in Mexico. Both areas have widespread poverty and a colonial history that resulted in oppression of the native population.  “Everything they describe is very similar,” he said. “Mexico is a Third World country. We understand Africa, it’s the same thing."

Ortiz said he became interested in Africa because there was a big Afro-Mexican community in Jalisco where he grew up. He would like to help get more investors interested in Africa and help bring electricity to those on the continent that don’t have it. 

Emma Castleberry, another UC Santa Cruz student in the class, said she has gained a different experience on current events from the Kenyan students, including learning about the November suicide bombings in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. She said it was also interesting hearing the students’ experiences dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kenyan students talked about the continent’s low vaccination rate and how some leaders have spread false information about vaccines. 

Cox will lead another “Focus on Africa” Global Classroom this summer which will include an in-depth study of the Kenya General Election slated for Aug. 9. Voters will elect a new president, members of the National Assembly and Senate, county governors and members of 47 county assemblies. 

The other Global Classroom that combines students from UC Santa Cruz and Co-Operative University of Kenya is one section of Merrill 1, the five-credit Merrill Core course. Merrill College Provost Elizabeth Abrams said the students in the course are working to create a “field guide to understanding the other.” Students learn how to confidently communicate and engage with others across differences. 

Mercy Jebichii Kiprotich, a Kenyan student, said she appreciates the chance to improve her critical thinking skills besides her synthesis skills. She is glad “to interact with my fellow students from outside my continent and share our ideas together.” 

Abrams, Cox and UC Santa Cruz theater faculty member Patty Gallagher had been planning to fly to Kenya late last year but the plan was canceled due to the Omicron variant. 

Plans are still moving forward to send UC Santa Cruz students and faculty to Kenya in summer 2023 for a study abroad program. 

Cox had a successful experience taking 11 students to South Africa, Tanzania and England in 2015. Olimpia Maderit Blanco-Zuniga, one of the students on the trip, said it was a memorable trip, which included a failed attempt to interview delegates attending the World Economic Forum on Africa,  and a chance to interview doctors about their work on malaria in Tanzania. Blanco-Zuniga remains in touch with Cox and is glad that he is continuing to create connections with UC Santa Cruz and Africa.

“It’s been amazing to see Melvin’s dream come to fruition,” she said. 

George Sabo, director of global initiatives with the Global Engagement division at UC Santa Cruz, said the Africa-focused Global Classroom courses are part of a larger initiative to offer students opportunities to connect with students around the world virtually.