The largest university in southwestern Kenya has signed a partnership agreement that will strengthen its relationship with yet another Minnesotan institution.
Representatives from Kisii University and Minnesota State University, Mankato, signed a letter of intent at a dinner on Nov. 9. The new agreement is an expanded memorandum of understanding (MOU) the two institutions signed in 2019 to collaborate mainly in the field of education, and has been “both positive and productive”, according to the letter of intent. It seeks to expand the current relationship to include “exchange of students, faculty, and ideas as well as curricular connections.”
“We value our partnership and seek to identify additional areas of potential collaboration to fulfill our mutual mission of bringing opportunity for social mobility, access to educational excellence, and betterment for communities,” said Dr. Brain Martensen, the interim provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Mankato.
The agreement was signed at Mankato, during a dinner hosting Kisii University Vice Chancellor Prof. John Akama, and Prof. Alfred Shitandi, the deputy vice chancellor of academic research and student affairs, who is also the registrar of research and extension.
In addition to enhancing learning, analytical problem-solving skills, and interest in global issues, international exchange programs help students understand, accept, and value other people through cultural immersion and language learning, according to the World Education Program.
The relationship between the two universities began through the Minnesota Kenyans International Development Association (MKIDA), an organization founded in 2003 to assist newly-arrived Kenyans transition smoothly into their adopted home, according to Dr. Gerald Nyachae Ondimu, its chairman. It later expanded its scope to incorporate more services, including providing immigrants from the east African country with opportunities to give back to the communities they came from through education.
“In 2008, the board was re-evaluating its priorities in terms of policy and direction the organization was intending to go,” Ondimu said. “One among other things we identified was how we can give back to the community we originally came from.”
Dr. David Kimori, MKIDA’s vice chair, who is also a professor at Mankato, was instrumental in initiating the partnership between the two universities.
“I had been working with MKIDA for some time and felt it was a good opportunity as a faculty member to introduce Mankato and MKIDA,” he said.
In 2018, Kimori made a presentation before Mankato’s Global Education Advisory Council to promote a partnership between the two universities. In 2019, Kisii University signed an MOU with Mankato’s College of Education, which trains educators. The following year, students from Mankato travelled to Kenya and spent four and a half weeks teaching at Kisii University.
Kimori, whose research focuses on teacher education and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum, said he was pleased to see the relationship flourishing.
“I’m happy to see young people really interacting and exchanging ideas internationally,” he said.
Dr. Elizabeth Finsness, the director of field and international experience at Mankato’s College of Education, was among the faculty members who accompanied the first cohort of students to Kisii University.
“It was amazing,” she said. “They had amazing attention from the faculty at Kisii.”
The new agreement extends opportunities for collaboration to all colleges at both universities. It also provides the option for students of both institutions to complete up to two years of study abroad.
Shitandi, the Kisii University deputy vice chancellor, said he hoped more schools at both universities would take advantage of the partnership.
“We also hope to have this continuation for the staff and student exchange,” he said.
MKIDA’s ties to Kisii University goes back more than a decade. The organization also helped start a relationship with the University of Minnesota and the Kenyan institution.
“The relationship with Kisii [University] really began back in 2009, when Kenyans living in Minnesota approached the University [of Minnesota],” said Dr. John Vreyens, the director of Global Initiatives, a program of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities Extension that collaborates with various international organizations.
But the relationship couldn’t have happened without the backing of Dr. Robert J. Jones, a former senior vice president for system academic administration at the University of Minnesota, who is now the chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was Jones, whose office was also in charge of public engagement, equity and diversity, and Extension Service, who made sure that once the initial contact between the universities was made, it progressed to the partnership it is today.
In 2012, Jones sent a delegation from the University of Minnesota, which included the Associate Vice President and Dean of International Programs Meredith McQuid, and Beverly R. Durgan, the dean of extension and professor of weed science, visited Kisii University.
Following the visit, a delegation of representatives from Kisii University, which included Akama and Shitandi, visited the University of Minnesota. Shortly after, the two institutions signed a memorandum of understanding.
Since the signing of the document, a wide array of academic exchanges has taken place.
In 2014, for example, a team of professors from the University of Minnesota’s Law school visited Kisii University and later established a new law school. MKIDA partnered with Thomson Reuters, the Canadian publisher of textbooks, to stock Kisii University Law School’s library through an arrangement with Books for Africa.
Students from Kisii University have also been able to participate in year-long work-based learning at the University of Minnesota’s School of Agriculture. Akama, the vice chancellor, said students have returned home more confident and eager to engage with their professors.
“The students who come here, when they go back, they’re kind of transformed,” he said. “You find that they are more interactive, and they appear to be more confident.”
Through their cooperation, the two universities also created a program that works with women farmers of leafy vegetables in the southwestern Kenya region. The program was launched with the help of a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Scientific Cooperation and Research Program, and has worked with more than 200 farmers, according to Vreyens, the Global Initiatives director.