By CHAD CALDER (Originally Published in The Advocate)
Southern University professor Victor Mbarika, newly appointed to the board that will oversee the redevelopment of Old South Baton Rouge, stepped up to the lectern at McKinley Middle School one Tuesday night last month.
Victor Mbarika with SLU Students (c) The Advocate
His job — like that of the 14 others who’d accepted their nominations — was to tell residents a little about himself and what he wanted to focus on personally.
But for almost a full third of the 150-member audience, no introductions were necessary. They were his students, and Mbarika had invited them to come and listen in.
He had asked them to use the knowledge they had acquired through Southern’s master’s e-business program to suggest possible projects that could be used to improve life in the neglected neighborhoods between downtown and LSU.
It wasn’t a very odd request for Mbarika to make.
“That is what really inspires me as a professor — to get students to go out into the field where they can do the most good,” he said.
His is one of three professors in Southern’s e-business MBA program, which began this fall with 45 students.
Just under a month later, Mbarika sits at a table at a Siegen Lane coffee shop, not too far from his house in a nondescript subdivision off of Siegen Lane.
It’s a long way from his native Cameroon, but Mbarika said he gets home to see his parents about once a year.
Mbarika’s parents owned a printing and publishing company, Agwecams, a name Mbarika uses for his Web design and service company. The first part of the name coming from his family name and the second from Cameroon.
Mbarika describes his upbringing as upper middle-class, but said he started down the road to delinquency in his early teens. But he credits a chance encounter with a Christian tract with straightening out his path and giving him a determination to succeed.
He credits any success he’s had in life not to his intellect or his drive, but to his relationship with God.
Mbarika got his bachelor’s degree at U.S. International University in Nairobi, Kenya, his master’s degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago and his Ph.D. at Auburn University.
His degrees are in information technology, an interest he credits to growing up in a part of the world where there is so little technology. He’s interested in how technology can influence poverty and promote sustainable political and economic development.
One of his favorite things about the Western model of higher education? The fact that you can move as quickly as your abilities allow. He got his bachelor’s degree in two years, his master’s in nine months and his Ph.D. in just over two years.
“Throughout my life I have pushed &hellip to prove myself,” he said, adding, with a laugh, “I was going to prove something to the world.”
One aspect of his education here that didn’t sit well, was an experience he had at the University of Illinois. There, an instructor told him dismissively that he’d never make it in the class.
Mbarika said he never knew for certain whether the comment was motivated by his race or nationality, but that it was most certainly not meant to be motivational. He said it was around then he started to notice that there aren’t enough black students getting advanced business degrees.
Mbarika said he was one of only two students in the information technology program, “and that was in the heart of Chicago.”
After a year-long stint teaching at Columbus State University in Georgia, Mbarika took a job teaching at LSU.
Mbarika said he doesn’t think LSU does enough to recruit black students into its MBA program, though he said he believes that about universities across the board, particularly in the South.
It’s a shame universities don’t work harder, he said, because “they’re leaving out a large pool of minorities that could be future leaders.”
His frustration was such that when Southern contacted him two years ago about starting the first e-business MBA at a public university in Louisiana, he jumped at the chance.
In addition to teaching classes for the e-business curriculum, Mbarika is involved in research projects designed to look at how technology can benefit poor, Third World countries.
The Global Information and Communications Technology Research Group includes fellow researchers in the United States, Sweden, France, Ethiopia, Uganda, Cameroon, Kenya and Rwanda.
Among the projects, Mbarika and others are looking at:
Tele-education: Using technology to bring education to places with few schools, and using long-distance learning to connect the United States and Third World countries.
E-business: Looking at how Third World countries can sell products online in Western markets.
Tele-medicine: Using technology to diagnose conditions in countries with few doctors.
Tele-democracy: Looking at how technology can spread democracy and undermine despotic regimes.
E-government: Looking at how information technology can be used to fight corruption and encourage good government.
Wireless telecommunications: Looking at the impact of cell phones on Third World countries.
“Those are the things that fascinate me about technology,” Mbarika said. “There are so many ways technology can serve the poor and the needy.”
When the search committee assembled to nominate board members for the effort to revitalize Old South Baton Rouge contacted Mbarika, he quickly said yes to joining the effort.
The response went beyond his belief that his expertise and resources could help improve the economic prospects of Old South Baton Rouge.
Mbarika said that he still has ties to the area from his years at LSU, and that he gets his hair cut regularly at a neighborhood barber shop. The invitation, he said, made made him feel a little hypocritical. about leaving the barber shop and heading to his home in the suburbs.
“I see people who look like me suffering, he said. “Their ancestors fought for the freedoms that allow me the life that I have.”
At that first board meeting in early October, Mbarika told the group he wanted to help create entrepreneurs and small businesses. More recently, he said he’d like to tap into as much as $1 million in grant money for the area.
And his army of graduate students — whose strong show of hands created gasps of surprise from the crowd — will be busy coming up with their own recommendations.
That, Mbarika said, illustrates the power of his profession: its capacity to create change and produce results in the real world.
“That’s what excites me about education,” he said.