Kent State University is taking over the world.

Well, not quite. But the university is expanding its global footprint by establishing operations in Rwanda, Africa. The initiative will “serve as a strategic starting point for engaging in the African continent’s expanding higher education market,” according to a recent news release.

It’ll be conducted via what’s known as a nonprofit community benefit company. This is a similar legal setup to what the university uses in some of its other international operations, like Florence, Italy, Geneva, Switzerland, and New Delhi, India, per officials. The university earned a national award for its international efforts last year.

Plans for this new push include “identifying high-quality education agencies already in existence that represent respected international partners; establishing, maintaining and improving working relationships with recruiting agencies and partner universities; and providing support for education-abroad programs and visiting university dignitaries,” the release stated.

One of the big goals of the initiative is helping to boost KSU’s presence in the markets of Rwanda, Nigeria, Ghana and nearby countries. Along with that action item includes carrying out a recruitment plan.

This comes after Kent State, like many of its peers here in America, saw a roughly 4% drop in full-time enrollment last fall as the pandemic continues to amplify already existing enrollment struggles. The university remains Northeast Ohio’s largest in terms of enrollment, though, with more than 26,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

“I think institutions are really feeling the pressure to ramp up the global engagement,” said Rajika Bhandari, an international higher education expert and author of the book America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility.

As for this new effort in Africa, there are two main reasons for developing it, according to Marcello Fantoni, KSU’s vice president for global education.

“Number one, it’s a business reason,” he said. “We have to be where the market grows.”

Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050. That’s a stark difference from Ohio, where the amount of high school graduates is expected to continue declining.

The second reason centers on expanding upon current opportunities and creating new ones for current KSU students. Studying abroad is a popular option — about 1,500 KSU students take part annually — but most go to somewhere in Europe.

Fantoni said there’s a need to go “beyond this umbilical cord that connects Western Europe to North America” when it comes to international learning.

“There is something to learn everywhere in the world, and not just from the people that are the most similar to us,” he said.

Enter The University of Rwanda. The website of the only public university in the African country lists several other international partnerships, including with Michigan State University and Colorado State University here in America.

There’s been a lot of time spent developing relationships between the Rwandan university and Kent State. The University of Rwanda’s president and a delegation of other officials visited Kent’s main campus for a week earlier this year. The “second in command” to the Rwandan ambassador visited, too, according to Fantoni, who added there’s an invite out to the Rwandan ambassador as well.

The university is offering up some free on-site office space to use, as well as support from faculty and staff. No money will be exchanged between the two institutions. Kent State is budgeting about $60,000 per year for this effort, according to officials.

The space will eventually be home to a liaison who will manage on-site activities. The two institutions eventually will offer a joint master’s degree program in peace and conflict studies.

One deal with the Ministry of Defense will send students to Kent’s College of Engineering for five years. Another with the Ministry of Education is in process. It would allow Rwandan teachers to sharpen their English skills through Kent’s ESL offerings.

Eventually there’s hope to establish a center in Rwanda similar to how the university operates in places around the globe. Fantoni said university officials would like to offer on-site support to Rwandan applicants who want to apply to KSU.

“The students really don’t have don’t have any resources to count on,” he said. “We got about 4,000 applications from sub-Saharan Africa this year, so there is an urgent need for supporting those students to get through the application process.”

To have a successful partnership between two international institutions — those that “go beyond checking the box, signing the MOU (memorandum of understanding) and really sustain over time,” per international education expert Bhandari — there needs to be a sense of equality between the partners.

It can quickly become an imbalance when a partnership becomes dominated by the norms of American higher education, she said.

“All of this comes down to really ensuring that there is a match, not just in terms of the work of the partnership and what it will entail, but also broader philosophies around what a post secondary education means,” she said.

As far as KSU’s next steps, the first hurdle was cleared late last month when its board of trustees approved the partnership. Next comes submitting paperwork to the government in Rwanda. The hope is to hire staff by late August or early September.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.