Title media by
Paige Gurstein

Graphic design by Paige Gurstein.

In an ongoing mission to “strengthen ties with Africa, and increase African student enrollment and exchanges”, Northeastern has announced its new Africa Global Initiative, an extensive program aiming to expand research, study abroad opportunities and partnerships with institutions across the continent. The initiative aims to promote a greater understanding of African cultures and histories, while addressing some of the most pressing challenges facing the continent, including healthcare, sustainable development and social justice. As an African-born immigrant and student at Northeastern, I am both excited and perplexed by this initiative – excited because it is a step towards bridging the gap between Africa and the rest of the world, but perplexed because this interest feels misguided. 

On one hand, Northeastern’s expansive resources have the potential to provide African students with quality education and professional experience, and increased African enrollment would mean more well-educated professionals able to contribute their talents to the betterment of their home countries. On the other, Northeastern’s history of unfulfilled promises to its local community brings the university’s motives into question. With the school’s consistently low admission rates for African American students, and lack of support for its surrounding Black community, this initiative seems an odd way to fix the strained relationship between Western institutions and the African diaspora. In fall 2021, African American students comprised only 5% of Northeastern's undergraduate student body despite making up 13.4% of the U.S. population—yet no new initiatives have been sparked by this obvious gap. Despite boasting its tireless commitment to the local community, Northeastern seems to be in search of a new face for the Black experience—choosing to pool its resources elsewhere instead of its own backyard.

 It’s well-known that top universities like Northeastern celebrate international enrollment for its financial advantages, so this comes as no surprise. With the university offering no need-based financial aid to international admits, it's clear what kind of talent this initiative aims to attract. For students unable to qualify for merit-based scholarships, Northeastern’s exorbitant tuition draws a line only the wealthy can cross. Through this initiative, Northeastern is able to use international students to bolster its already impressive revenue surplus—but once enrolled, what do international students gain in return? 

The answer lies in Northeastern’s relationship with its local Black community. Despite boasting seamless integration with the city it inhabits, Northeastern is no stranger to conflict with the communities it benefits from. The university’s aggressive expansion into nearby neighborhoods, especially the historically Black neighborhood of Roxbury, has also forced out residents as students turn to off-campus housing to address the limited and pricey on-campus offerings. As students have moved into Boston’s lower income neighborhoods, property values have risen above what the community can afford. 

The university’s past and continued involvement in gentrification perpetuates the institutionalized racism that keeps the value of Boston’s black family at a meager $8. Expansion into Roxbury, accompanied by rising housing prices, has led to the displacement of long-time residents and the loss of cultural and historical significance. This displacement has caused widespread anger and frustration among the local community, who feels that Northeastern is taking over their neighborhood and giving little in return

As we witness firsthand the gentrification of Roxbury and the displacement of local families and businesses, Northeastern’s attention to Africa sends the message that it values some communities more than others. Instead of perceiving Africa as a helpless entity, the university should recognize the diversity and richness of the diaspora by recommitting to its African American students. These promises are hard to believe, with their gargantuan endowments, exercise their power in direct conflict with the interests of their surrounding communities. This has resulted in a campus that is culturally diverse, but uniform in terms of class and race. The lack of African American representation on our campus is striking, especially in a city like Boston which is steeped in Black history

 If Northeastern truly wants to be a leader in diversity, it must give its local community the same attention it does to its global community. The university must abandon its search for the most-profitable source of endowment and truly invest in its Black students. Northeastern should invest its time and resources into supporting local communities and creating opportunities for African American students before funneling resources elsewhere. It must also take  responsibility for its role in gentrification, and work with the local community to preserve Roxbury’s vibrant community and history. Northeastern University’s Global Africa Initiative is a step in the right direction, but it should not come at the expense of local African American students.