Talatou Abdoulaye came to Utah for an advanced college degree but had no idea the classes would be so different from the ones offered in his home country of Mali.
The one and only university in the west African country serves 70,000 students with little more than 700 faculty members and does very little to encourage creativity, Abdoulaye said recently during a ceremony commemorating a new partnership involving four Utah colleges and universities and the University of Bamako in Mali.
"It is totally different here," the 39-year-old University of Utah doctoral student said. "In short, I would say that what I've liked most are the freedom to research and tackle whatever project you want and the opportunities in terms of the choice of majors here. These are very important to foster learning and development at the college level."
Abdoulaye, who translated the meeting with Utah dignitaries for Mali Minister of Higher Education Ginnette Ballegarde Siby, who was visiting for the occasion, said he hopes to take his new knowledge back to his country to help develop higher education there. He is also hoping to focus on redefining curriculum for grade-level schools in Mali.
"For higher education to be sustainable, we need to have consistency at the lower levels," he said.
That consistency could result from having more schools and making education available to the rural communities of Mali, which is where the Utah-based nonprofit organization Mali Rising comes in. The group facilitates the building of schools, and the Malian government has promised to staff them so more students can have access to education. Plans for a second university there are in the works, Abdoulaye said.
"We are grateful to the state of Utah for what is being done and for what we can do together," said Yeah Samake, executive director of Mali Rising and mayor of a small town in the west African country. He travels back and forth from Mali to Utah and works to coordinate studies between professors and researchers at Utah institutions and Bamako. "This agreement has the potential of bringing funding to Utah schools," he said, adding that being involved with a developing nation puts Utah in a good place to receive federal grants.
"These universities enter into this agreement to collaborate to provide a wide range of research opportunities and activities to students and faculty in Mali," Samake said.
The opportunity to be engaged is important, said Utah State University President Stan Albrecht, who signed the agreement Wednesday morning at the state Capitol. He said USU's focus on agricultural and irrigation engineering could have great potential to help a country like Mali.
"Outreach is a key component of Utah State University's mission," said Brent Miller, vice president for research at USU. "By partnering with other colleges and universities in the state and government of Mali, we are also supporting the university's global initiative."
Other schools involved in the cooperative include Weber State University, Salt Lake Community College and Utah Valley University.
"It's an interesting opportunity," said Danny Damron, UVU's International Center director. "Mali is a very poor country that we can learn a lot from and maybe make a difference in."
Samake said the program can open doors for higher education in Mali and "help to build capacities for the university that can, in turn, impact economic growth." Malian faculty and students have expressed a desire to study in America, and many students in Utah have already visited and spent time learning in African villages. "They will return to their homes and will be able to make a difference there," Samake said.
Gov. Gary Herbert said the agreement is a "tremendous opportunity" for Utah and "the first step in a long and profitable journey."
"We will learn much from each other," he said.