Georgia State University has established a strong international presence in recent years, particularly in developing and transitioning economies such as South Africa, Ambassador John Hicks, assistant provost for international affairs, told GlobalAtlanta in an interview at his Georgia State University office downtown.

A notable example of the university’s involvement in South Africa is the Ronald H. Brown Institute for Sub-Saharan Africa, (RBI). This $5 million USAID-funded program for the last four and a half years has supported business skills strengthening through workshops, seminars, internships and other activities. Two million dollars of the USAID grant was used by the Georgia State University Foundation to establish an endowment fund to help ensure the long-term sustainability of the RBI. “Over that past few years, we have extended our international focus beyond our long standing cooperation with numerous countries in western Europe to include cooperation with more countries in Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean. We pay special attention to Africa given the very significant presence of Africans in the Atlanta metropolitan area and the tremendous economic and social development challenges facing the continent of Africa” he added.

The transcript of the complete interview with ambassador Hicks in which he discusses Georgia State’s focus on Africa follows.

GlobalAtlanta: Georgia State has had a presence in South Africa for some time now. What are your activities in that country and how do you see that going forward?

Amb. Hicks: Georgia State has been substantively involved with South African higher education institutions for nearly a decade. We have collaborative relationships with several universities ranging from joint faculty research to large scale economic development programs.

The oldest such relationship is with the University of Venda for Science and Technology (UNIVEN) in the northern province of South Africa. The University of Venda is one of the so-called historically disadvantaged institutions with whom we established a relationship some ten years ago. It emerged as a result of participation in a faculty development seminar to South Africa by a Professor in the Robinson College of Business. Our cooperation with UNIVEN grew over time and through a grant from the Tertiary Linkages Program of the United Negro College Fund in 1999, the Georgia State/UNIVEN relationship expanded dramatically. The Robinson College of Business worked with UNIVEN’s Business School to establish: (1) a Center for Entrepreneurship (2) a computer information center and (3) a department of hospitality and tourism. This has been a highly successful program and our cooperation with the University of Venda has expanded to include other disciplines such as health and education.

We also work very closely with the University of Pretoria. Georgia State’s cooperation with UP was spearheaded by the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. Our initial activities in 1998 included student and faculty exchange and research in economics and fiscal studies. Since then, we have established a university-to-university relationship; and senior administrators, faculty members and students are engaged in various cooperation undertakings. Georgia State/University of Pretoria cooperation includes areas such as education, the humanities, science, business, economics, public health and HIV/AIDS and policy studies.

In 2000, the Andrew Young School and the Robinson College of Business partnered with the University of Pretoria and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to compete for and won the $5million USAID Ronald Brown Institute for Sub-Saharan Africa project. This initiative came directly out of President Bill Clinton’s trip to Africa toward the end of his second term. President Clinton wanted to honor the tremendous work of the late commerce secretary Ronald H. Brown in promoting business, trade and commercial relationships with Africa.

The Ronald Brown Institute focuses on strengthening African participation in business and private enterprise. RBI activities include expanding small businesses, encouraging entrepreneurship and helping build skills to allow more Africans to work in the large business sector. Over the course of the four-year project, some 250 interns from fourteen different African countries benefited from RBI programs. The program was successful in incubating a number of businesses and individuals who previously had neither the opportunity nor requisite skills are now successful businesspersons.

To ensure long-term sustainability of the RBI and its programs, a $2 million dollar endowment fund has been established. Although the RBI is an independent organization, Georgia State and the University of Pretoria will continue to work in partnership with the Institute to continue to expand its programs and foster new and innovative approaches to enhancing African participation in business throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. GlobalAtlanta: Georgia State has a strong focus on Africa. What are some of the other developments in the region?

For more than a decade, Georgia State University, led by its College of Arts and Sciences, has collaborated with Universities in Egypt. We have active relationships with Cairo University, Suez Canal University and the Alexandria Institute for Technology. Programs include joint master’s degree programs in business and biotechnology, nursing, the humanities, teacher training and special education.

In Ghana, we worked closely with both public and private sector stakeholders through funding provided by USAID to build capacity in the tourism sector, where there exists tremendous potential for growth and expansion.

GlobalAtlanta: Could you describe Georgia State’s strategic initiatives for the region?

Amb. Hicks: Certainly. We approach strategic international initiatives in Africa and other parts of the world basically from two directions.

First, our work has a thematic focus wherein we take advantage of comparative strengths or advantages that we have to offer. For instance we have one of the best business school’s of any public university in the U.S. It has a strong focus on small business development, enterpreneurship, risk management, marketing, accounting and other disciplines. Robinson College leadership and faculty have a strong interest in Africa. Therefore we look for opportunities in Africa to exploit this institutional capacity, interest and experience.

Our other approach is to look at countries or regions of special interest to the university. Africa presents the greatest development challenge in the world. Its needs for assistance extend to every sector and discipline. As a part of our commitment to service, we believe we have a lot to offer in support of Africa’s development. At the same time, we have much to learn. This occurs through our study abroad programs that afford our students an opportunity to live and learn in other cultures as well as the extensive collaboration between faculty and administrators from Georgia State and our African partner institutions. GlobalAtlanta: Your interest in the region appears to come from your own personal experiences. You have tremendous international expertise in Africa having served as ambassador. Can you tell us about some of that exposure?

Amb. Hicks: I was fortunate enough to spend a first career in the U.S. Foreign Service, mostly with the United States Agency for International Development. I started as an intern in the early 1970s and rose to the rank of Assistant Administrator for Africa. During that time I had the opportunity to serve in five different countries in Africa with USAID and lived on the continent for almost 15 years. So my professional background is economic development and the bulk of my career in international development has been working on these issues in the field. After some 23 years with USAID, I was appointed as U.S. ambassador to Eritrea. Our efforts there focused on trying to promote economic development in a country where there was a tremendous amount of self –pride and national cohesion.

I came to Georgia State University believing that the university’s vision of international education and my background and professional interest were a good match. On the one hand, Georgia State was looking to strengthen and deepen its involvement internationally. The university wanted someone with hands on experience with international organizations and had actually lived in other parts of the world–again reflecting the university’s desire for greater exposure in developing and transition countries. From my perspective, I was seeking to broaden my horizons professionally while continuing to work in the international arena.

Leading international efforts at Georgia State University for the past six years has very gratifying. While much remains to be done, significant progress has been made in internationalizing education at the university.

This has required the committed leadership of the president, provost and senior administrators of the university along with the investment of financial resources to achieve ambitious objectives.

GlobalAtlanta: This commitment to internalization seems to be a key differentiator at Georgia State. Can you tell us about the university’s international activities?

Amb. Hicks: Georgia State’s international focus really aims at building international perspectives in the educational experience of our students, faculty and staff. We, like many other excellent institutions, appreciate the fact that in order for our students to be competitive in what is clearly a global society, students must learn not only about local, state and national issues but also have a better understanding of other people and cultures. Therefore, we emphasize study abroad for our students. Currently, we have programs that go to nearly 30 countries involving hundreds of students. We maintain a large and vibrant population of international students and scholars, numbering about 1800 and 180 respectively from 135 different countries. Their presence enriches academic and social life and exposes our American students to the diversity of other parts of the world. Our mission of community service extends to our international work through international economic and social development activities in developing and transitioning countries.

Finally, internationalizing the curriculum is a critical element of our efforts to strengthen international education. It is important that the courses are designed in such a way that international issues and perspectives are part of the course content. Language and area studies are also emphasized. With respect to the former, a total of fourteen languages, both traditional and non-traditional are available for our students.

Sebastian Mathews for GlobalAtlanta