What Are They Doing Now and Why?

By Alison Segal, former Admissions Officer, University of Chicago

In the fall of 2007, as a Master's student in Northwestern University's Higher Education Administration and Policy Program, I had the chance to undertake an original research project of my choosing. The only requirement for the project was that I ask a question relevant to my practice within the field of higher education. Having worked as an admissions officer at the University of Chicago for several years, and subsequently as a high school college counselor, I had a universe of topics from which to choose. I ultimately chose to conduct my research on Usap, asking the question, " What Factors Impact the Post College Outcomes of Zimbabwean Students in the United States Achievers Program?" A more worthy, engaging and personally rewarding project I could not have imagined. In the lines that follow, I'll provide some brief background about my involvement with Usap before presenting the study's major findings, as well as some directions for future research.

My relationship with Usap began in November 2003 in Hamburg, Germany at the annual conference of the European Council of International Schools (ECIS). There I met Rebecca Zeigler Mano, U.S. Educational Advisor in Harare, Zimbabwe, Founder of Usap and Director of the Zimbabwean Usap office. Over dinner one night, Rebecca explained the program to me and described the remarkable students involved. The Usap model was compelling to me both professionally and personally. As Director of International Admissions at the University of Chicago, an institution that cared deeply about creating a global community of students and scholars, and was fortunate to be able to offer full financial aid to international students, having access to exceptional applicants the likes of which Usap selected and screened was a dream come true. On a personal level, I was drawn by the incredible stories of "Usap Kids" (as they were then called) – not only the stories of their backgrounds, but of their many accomplishments once they began living and learning in the United States. Usap's success – evidenced in part by the fact that in its first four years alone, 57 students had gained admission and full funding to 35 distinct institutions of higher education – was not only benefitting the students and universities involved, but also, clearly, society at large. Impressed and inspired, I assured Rebecca that Chicago would welcome Usap applications. The following January, the first application arrived, from Alton Tatenda Mpungu of Kutama College. Chicago offered Alton admission, along with international financial aid and the prestigious College Honor Scholarship (CHS), which together would cover the full cost of his attendance. To our great delight he accepted, and matriculated at Chicago in the fall of 2004.

On a warm and sunny mid-September afternoon, my husband, Dan, and I collected Tatenda from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart's character Rick Blaine in Casablanca, that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Tatenda has been an important and treasured part of our lives since then. Though I left my post at the U of C for graduate school a year later, we stayed in good touch, catching up regularly for dinner, and generally keeping tabs on each other's lives. We remain close still, even following Tatenda's graduation and both of our recent moves away from Chicago – Tatenda to Manhattan to start his first job, and Dan and I to London. I have no doubt that our friendship will continue for a long time to come.

Alton Tatenda Mpungu on his graduation day in the Spring of 2008

In fact, Tatenda's process of selecting a post-college plan was the genuine inspiration for my research question. When he arrived at the U of C, he planned to major in Biology and go on to medical school. Yet, by the middle of his second year, he had become increasingly interested in Economics and, with the help of a few Usap graduates, had landed a prestigious summer internship in investment banking in New York City. While changing one's post-college plan is certainly not revolutionary for your average US college student, Tatenda's shift was curious to me. Based on what I knew of his educational background (the A-level system had required him to specialize in his final two years of high school; accordingly, he had focused on hard sciences and math), his family (to which he provided regular and ongoing financial support – even though he, himself, was the beneficiary of the University's support), the ever-worsening economic crisis in Zimbabwe, as well as Usap's role in helping him to secure his internship, certain factors seemed to be at play. I wanted to know more about these factors, and study them in depth. I wanted to know if the kinds of considerations that Tatenda faced were faced by other Zimbabwean Usap students as well. This, I thought, could be the crux of my research question. If, indeed, a set of factors was identifiable as shapers of Zimbabwean Usap students' post-college plans, the study could be quite illuminating. The identification of the "factors" could help flag obstacles that Usap students face as they make post-college plans. In turn, the flagging of these obstacles could help Usap students reach their full potential, thus benefitting not only the students involved, but society as well. The study might also help colleges and universities better serve Usap students. Finally, the research could be instructive to the Usap program itself, as it continued to grow and build on its success.

Armed with this rationale, I conducted a literature review in domains relevant to the research, including foreign students at US colleges and universities, foreign students and career development, cohort models for college access and enrollment, and the current state of Zimbabwe. The literature review helped inform the data collection plan, which consisted of an online survey of Usap graduates and in-depth interviews with current Usap juniors and seniors in college, Usap graduates and college and university administrators who had worked closely with the Usap program.

The study produced a wealth of interesting findings, suggesting many promising directions for future research. Perhaps most compelling, all populations studied were in agreement about four distinct factors impacting Zimbabwean Usap students' post-college outcomes. These were: the responsibility to provide financial assistance to family members; the current state of Zimbabwe; Usap students' and graduates' commitment to the future of Zimbabwe; and Usap itself. I'll briefly elaborate on the "big four":

Responsibility to provide financial assistance to family members

"My family is still … in Zimbabwe and it's not like they're living an easy life … So getting a job within this particular industry [financial services] would be helpful in having the cash to actually support people at home." – Student Interviewee 1

89% of survey respondents somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement, "My desire to help my family financially has impacted my plans since graduating from college." Further, all nine interview subjects cited the need to support family financially as a concern of Usap students as they determine their post-college plans. The finding is supported by the fact that the vast majority of survey respondents (85.7%) were employed, typically by for-profit organizations. The data suggests that Tatenda's situation is not unique, and that many Usap students have responsibilities – financial and otherwise – to family back home. The way in which Zimbabwean Usap students reconcile the financial needs of family with their own personal goals and ambitions is likely to vary by individual, and additional research in this area could explore the relationship even further.

The current state of Zimbabwe

"I would have loved to go back home soon after graduating but I don't think it was practical and I don't think it still is practical for me … With the current situation … where 80% of the people are unemployed … I felt like if I were to go back home I would just have a job where I could barely meet my expenses … Moreover, my family … everybody save for one person is in Zimbabwe at the moment and they are really struggling to make ends meet." - Graduate Interviewee 2

Current students, graduates and administrators all acknowledged that Zimbabwe's current economic crisis makes it difficult for Zimbabwean Usap students to consider returning home in the short term. 82% of survey respondents were living in the United States at the time of the survey; of those, 54% expected to be living in the United States for "a period of time." Among the reasons given by graduates for staying in the United States post-college were educational opportunities (mentioned by 68%), professional opportunities (acknowledged by 61%) and "earning a salary that enables me to support my family financially" (cited by 43%). Many study participants wished that they could have returned home to Zimbabwe following graduation—often because they wanted to live closer to their families – but recognized that such a move would be neither in their own best interest nor in the best interest of their families. Here it is possible to see how the first and second findings of the study are mutually influencing. Staying abroad after study enables many Usap students to support their families; returning home would make them incapable of doing so. Additionally, because Zimbabwean universities have suffered drastic cutbacks to funding and resources in recent years, Usap students wishing to pursue graduate study find more opportunities in the US and elsewhere than at home.

Commitment to the future of Zimbabwe

"Zimbabwe hasn't been doing really well in economics lately and when I came here being [focused on] mathematics and thinking about computer science, that would really be helpful, too, but I didn't think that was what Zimbabwe was looking for … I think especially economics would be really helpful because we definitely need new economic ideas." – Student Interviewee 2

"I definitely think they will find a way to give back to their society and community, whether its physically being there or whether its using whatever position they have in society or in their work world or in their private life to make that happen." – Administrator Interviewee 2

The study's third major finding was Usap students' and graduates' commitment to the future of Zimbabwe. Ninety-three percent of survey respondents agreed with the statement, "My desire to contribute to the betterment of Zimbabwe has impacted my plans since graduating from college," while a full 100% of students and graduates interviewed expressed their desire to contribute to Zimbabwe's future. Especially interesting to the researcher was the extent to which some study participants considered the needs of Zimbabwe in their choice of major or post-college pursuit, as seen in Student 2's quote above. While the future places of residence of Usap graduates remain to be seen, 75% of survey respondents indicated that they one day expect to be living in Zimbabwe again. Many study participants explained that staying abroad after study would allow them to acquire the kinds of skills, education, training, life experience and network that would enable them to have a greater eventual impact in Zimbabwe, and in the world more generally. This finding suggests that Usap students think critically about the needs of Zimbabwe as they determine their career directions. An implication of this finding is that Zimbabwean Usap graduates could be less likely to succumb to the phenomenon of Brain Drain that affects many foreign students from developing nations. The reasons why Usap students and graduates feel committed to Zimbabwe, therefore, are important to discover.

The United States Achievers Program (Usap)

"[Two older Usap students] were the first ones to implant the idea that I should look into finance, that it might be something that might be interesting to me, and even with the interview process and tips, going to New York, getting a house, where to stay, how to hang out in the city, getting to know people, I relied on those guys, so the network has been family … it definitely feels like they are my brothers … they are looking out for me and they are kind of showing me around, so for the internship and making me realize my dreams I think definitely [Usap] has been very instrumental." – Student Interviewee 1

"I'll get a lot of Usap students who are still in college emailing me or calling me for me to share with them what I do and how I got to work where I work … and so on. So I feel like now I'm playing that role of guiding and counseling students who are coming up." – Graduate Interviewee 2

The fourth finding of the study is perhaps the most valuable from the perspective of future practice: Usap itself seems to impact Zimbabwean Usap students' post-college plans in multiple ways.

Usap as a network. The study suggests that Usap is a helpful tool for educational and professional advice as well as networking. 71% of survey respondents found Usap to be helpful to them in this way, while four of six student and graduate interviewees had received career-related advice or assistance from fellow Usap students. In turn, Usap graduates serve as a resource to younger students in the program, reflecting the program's "pay it forward" ethos. Mentoring in this direction insures the utility of the network over time.

Usap as an anchor to home country. Students, graduates and administrators all acknowledged that Usap helps to fortify a shared commitment to the future of Zimbabwe. A male student commented, "I think it's all Usap that has helped me to make all these decisions. Like the fact that I still feel responsible to go back home and try to contribute to the economy in Zimbabwe … it's this whole core idea that all Usap students have of trying to give back to the community." This is an especially important finding in light of the current state of Zimbabwe, as well as the literature on foreign students from developing nations and brain drain. Though many Usap graduates have chosen not to return to Zimbabwe in the short term (for reasons previously discussed), a commitment to Zimbabwe's future is nurtured and fortified through the program, and this could have many positive implications for the country in the future.

Usap inspires "giving back" behavior among students generally. Finally, Usap helps to foster a desire among Usap students to give back generally, and more specifically, to the individuals and groups that have been key to their own success. 82% of those surveyed felt that Usap's ethos of giving back had changed their professional or personal outlook in some way.

The study's four main findings begin to shed light on the factors that impact the post-college outcomes of Zimbabwean Usap students. Each creates greater understanding of the context in which Usap students make post college plans and begin to build their lives following graduation. Stepping back from objectivity, I find the third and fourth findings, as well as the relationship between them, to be the most exciting. While the first two findings could also apply to other (non-Usap) international students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, the fourth finding, and (to an extent) the third, relate directly to Usap. These findings underscore not only Usap's unique existence in the world, but its future promise. As the program grows globally, as it has already begun to do, it is possible to imagine how the Usap network will expand in turn, generating more and more social capital for the students and alumni involved. Equally, Usap's ability to shore up students' commitment to their home countries by providing a peer group with similar backgrounds, experiences and values is a wonderful, possibly world changing, prospect. This initial Usap research is just the beginning. There are many promising directions for future research, and as Usap continues to grow, so too, I hope, will the efforts to document its success, as well as what will no doubt be its considerable impact on the world and the students involved.

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