Among the thousands of undergraduates beginning their first classes at UC Berkeley this fall, 21 freshmen from sub-Saharan Africa will form the largest group of students entering the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program.
The program — which aims to provide young people, particularly from sub-Saharan Africa, with access to secondary and postsecondary education — selects students based on their academic excellence, economic disadvantage and desire to give back to their communities, according to the foundation’s website. This spring, the first group of undergraduates who started with the program at UC Berkeley in 2012 are expecting to graduate.
As part of the program, undergraduate students attend professional development workshops and programs about leadership and financial literacy. Each semester, they participate in a schoolwide day of community service as part of the Berkeley Project and gather for movie nights and an annual vacation retreat.
“There has been a lot of learning, since this is the first ‘holistic’ scholarship program on campus for international students and not all services were designed to accommodate that demographic,” said Jessica Clarkson, the program coordinator and adviser.
One hundred and thirteen graduates and undergraduates are expected to have completed their schooling at UC Berkeley with the program by 2020. Over the course of the program’s planned eight years, the foundation expects to have contributed approximately $30 million in campus scholarships, according to Martha Saavedra, the campus manager for the program.
Saavedra noted the difficulties in finding funding for international students who cannot afford the cost of attendance at UC Berkeley, citing the increased fees they pay compared with those paid by local students.
The program emphasizes students returning to the continent with their skills, according to Saavedra. Nearly all of the 11 postgraduates who completed their programs at UC Berkeley have returned to Africa to work, though not necessarily to their country of origin, Saavedra said.
Wycliffe Aluga, a freshman from Kenya who is in the program, said his years at a high school in South Africa prepared him for living away from home and experiencing different cultures.
“My school had 200 students from 45 different African countries,” Aluga said. “The more diverse you are, the more awesome it is.”
Other freshmen cited typical first-year challenges in their first months at the school, from complaints about the food and negotiating with roommates to anxiety concerning classes and majors. Apart from noting the friendliness of people in Berkeley and the hot California weather, the students said they still have to adjust to tipping waiters, something uncommon in many countries.
Another freshman, Adjaratou Mame Kaffa Sakho, originally from Senegal, said that in her first year on campus, she is strategically exploring her passions across a range of fields, from arts to activism to environmental issues.
“Berkeley is a big place, but you have your space to be authentic, and I’ve been looking for that since I was young,” Sakho said. “The challenging part is the small community I belonged to was given to me in a plate of gold.”
UC Berkeley is one of six campuses in the United States that participate in the program. The last round of undergraduate applicants for the scholarship will apply this year and begin in the fall semester of 2016.