7:00 A.M. EST Sept. 15, 2010 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)
James W. Holsinger Jr. leads a discussion about research findings that indicate awareness of Africa University is “submerged” and knowledge is vague among many United Methodists. UMNS photos by Kathy L. Gilbert.
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Research shows Africa University may be one of the best stories most United Methodists have never heard.
Established by the 1988 United Methodist General Conference, Africa University in Old Mutare, Zimbabwe, held its first classes in 1992.
Its success is one of its biggest obstacles.
Many think it is “mission accomplished,” said Angella Current-Felder, a committee member in Nashville who has been involved with efforts to establish the university from the start.
“The fact congregations are not hearing about their contribution to this important and life-changing mission is an indictment on not only the pastor but other key administrative leaders within the local church,” she said.
In 2009, 24 out of 62 annual (regional) conferences paid 100 percent of their apportionments to the Africa University Fund. The apportionments support the university’s operational budget.
The Africa University Development Committee asked United Methodist Communications to recommend a researcher to find out what people know about the university and the AU Fund.
“A portion of those funds go to United Methodist Communications specifically to promote the Africa University Fund,” said James Salley, associate vice chancellor for institutional advancement for United Methodist-related Africa University.
Meera J. Buck, research specialist, surveyed two conferences that have historically paid 100 percent of the AU apportioned funds (North Carolina and Greater New Jersey) and two conferences that have not (Northern Illinois and Florida). Her findings were shared with members of the development committee Sept. 11.
Grace Muradzikwa, from Harare, Zimbabwe, offers suggestions on ways to make Africa University better known in the denomination.
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“Awareness of Africa University is submerged and knowledge is vague,” she said.
People need to feel a personal connection in order to establish long-term engagement, Buck said.
‘Put a human face on Africa University’
Two important issues surfaced in the research, Buck said.
Target audiences want to know what makes the university uniquely Christian and United Methodist, and they want to know if students go back to their own countries to make a difference.
“Many are concerned that, having received an exclusive education, students may be tempted to go elsewhere to further their ambitions, contributing to a ‘brain drain’ in African countries,” Buck said.
“This is our challenge as we move forward: to put a human face on Africa University,” said Jen Rooney, a member of the development committee from Arizona. “Facts and figures alone don't tell the story as much as the personal, emotional and spiritual components of ubuntu (humanness) that exude from AU.”
Connecting the money people donate to the real stories about lives being changed has always been a challenge, said Tom McAnally, a committee member in Nashville.
Artemus Gaye, an alumnus of Africa University, said people
need to hear the success stories of graduates.
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“There is no substitute for face-to-face communications, but there is no way every United Methodist can experience first-hand the people to whom and with whom we United Methodists minister around the world,” he said. “We must rely on printed and video resources to inform, educate and inspire people. The research confirmed what we already knew: that those resources must reflect real people, real stories.”
In June, Africa University held its 16th graduation ceremony for more than 300 students. The need for higher education in Africa remains critical, Current-Felder said.
“What's not being heard is that the need for higher education in Africa is still crucial and critical if poverty and hunger are to be eradicated; cures for HIV/AIDs and other killer diseases are to be found; Christianity and its values shared; governments stabilized and quality of life for the majority of people of the continent improved.”
Suggestions on ways to form lasting relationships from the committee members will be used to develop test concepts, the final phase of the research project. Salley said the research findings will be studied to determine how best to promote the university and the fund in the future.
“We are looking together, the Africa University Development Committee and United Methodist Communications, to make Africa University better known and supported,” Salley said.
*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.