A strip of red carpet was taken out of storage and laid out in front of Burruss Hall. The Highty-Tighties had practiced Botswana’s national anthem for a week. The only Virginia Tech student from Botswana was recruited to be part of the welcoming delegation.
Then, with blue lights flashing, the police escort circled the Drillfield and came to a stop in front of Tech’s administration building. Out stepped a husky man in a dark blue suit — the president of the African nation of Botswana.
Tuesday’s visit by His Excellency President Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi was a landmark day for the university — Secret Service agents and Botswanian security intermingling to provide security, university staff tracking the president’s progress after he landed at the Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport after a flight from New York, at least one student with a handmade sign with the Botswanian flag and “welcome” spelled out in what I assume was the native language of Setswana. This was, after all, the first time that an international head of state had ever visited the Blacksburg campus.
Beyond the ceremonial hoopla, Masisi’s visit to Virginia Tech also serves to underscore several important points that go far beyond Blacksburg — and Botswana, too, for that matter. Here are four of them.
1. Virginia Tech is an international institution. Tech is hardly alone in having that distinction, but it’s our institution. It’s also either the largest or second-largest public university in the state. If you count just undergraduates, it’s No. 1, if you count graduate students, then it’s No. 2 behind George Mason University. If you count all students, and all schools, then both are behind Liberty University, whose numbers are swelled by its online programs, but let’s not lose sight of the point here. The point is that a large research university can’t help but be international in scope. Virginia Tech has 3,868 international students from 126 countries (the United Nations counts 193 members). As we saw, one of those — and just one — is from Botswana, a landlocked nation in southern Africa just north of South Africa. Naya Hughes has a telling backstory, too. Both her father and grandfather went to Virginia Tech, so it was always high on her list of schools. “I’m studying to be a vet and I heard about the very good animal science program,” Hughes said. In this case, Virginia Tech’s legacy extends from Burruss Hall to Botswana.
Perhaps more important than international students coming to Tech is Tech’s work extending around the world. Tech’s website lists formal programs overseas in Botswana, Chile, India and Switzerland, although individual faculty members may wind up in lots of other places. A quick scroll through Tech’s website shows off headlines about research being done in Brunei, the Dominican Republic, Kenya, Nepal, New Zealand, South Africa and Uganda. Research doesn’t necessarily always take place in the lab. We in Virginia may sometimes judge a university by the record of its football team but the world probably judges it by a different standard.
The visit by Botswana’s president came about because Kathleen Alexander, a professor of wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, co-founded a nonprofit center in Botswana to promote conservation. The Blacksburg-based Alexander WildLab works with this Centre for African Resources, Animals, Communities and Land Use studying the emergence of infectious diseases that spread between people and animals, a subject that has heightened awareness in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a particular concern in Botswana, a country that has staked much of its economy on wildlife-based tourism. Masisi has visited Alexander’s lab in Botswana and returned the favor with a visit to Blacksburg. As Tech President Timothy Sands greeted the president on the red carpet, Masisi could be heard saying that Alexander has been “a great ambassador.”
2. Protecting the environment can create jobs. For a long time, we’ve often viewed the choice as protecting the environment or creating jobs. If you’re a coal miner unhappy that coal-fired plants are shutting down because of concern about carbon emissions, that’s an easy way to frame things. Masisi framed things quite differently in his talk to a ballroom full of mostly students in the Squires Student Center. In my research on Masisi, I found him routinely described — by international media and think tanks — as being focused on economic development and creating a higher-wage economy in Botswana (something we in this part of Virginia can certainly appreciate). He also seems to be successful. The World Bank says Botswana has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with its gross domestic product growing at a rate of 11.4% for the last data year (the United States was listed at 5.7%). Much of that economic growth has come from tourism, which Masisi said is now second only to diamonds as the nation’s source of income. That tourism is also tied directly to protecting the wildlife that tourists want to see. Botswana is home to the world’s largest herd of elephants — “130,000 and still counting,” Masisi said, chuckling. The country has set aside 40% of its land for conservation, he said, prompting a round of spontaneous applause. That’s also a classic First World response. Masisi talked about the downside of living so close to such wildlife. “Unfortunately, some of our people have paid the ultimate price in our blood — they have been attacked and mauled by elephants,” he said. “Marauding elephants” sometimes damage crops, and so often aren’t popular with farmers. Nevertheless, he said, “our people have embraced living together with these majestic creatures.”
There are also controversial choices to be made. Masisi has lifted the country’s temporary ban on elephant hunting — something that prompted international criticism — because elephant hunting also brings in tourists (and probably keeps some of those farmers happy). In a very general sense, Botswana is cashing in on the same thing that many communities in this part of Virginia are: an outdoors economy.
Addendum: I’ve heard lots of politicians speak, but I’ve never heard one speak so much about science as Masisi did. Much of his formal talk dealt with conservation issues, including the dangers of infectious diseases jumping species. For what it’s worth, he’s a former social studies teacher who eventually went on to become an administrator at the University of Botswana (and obtained a master’s degree from Florida State) before he went into politics.
3. Universities are economic engines. How many times have I written that? It’s why there’s now a push to make the University of Virginia’s College at Wise into a research university. It’s why the New College Institute in Martinsville was founded. It’s why the New River Valley has one of the fastest-growing economies in the state. We’re not the only ones who recognize this economic truth. Since Masisi was elected president of Africa’s oldest democracy in 2018, he has consistently visited the United States, with trips to universities as the centerpiece. Our governors (just not the current one) typically make foreign trips to recruit new businesses. Here’s an African head of state who seems determined to get American universities involved in his country. In 2018, he visited Florida State, his alma mater, and made the case for the school to admit more students from Botswana to its graduate programs. In 2019, he visited Stanford and Yale and talked up a wide range of potential partnerships. In November, he was at Rutgers to sign a deal for collaboration in health care and information technology. In December, he was in Texas to sign a deal with Texas A&M to promote more agricultural research. Now he’s at Virginia Tech and used his appearance to pitch closer ties. “Look into the future, Virginia Tech,” he said. “Where is the growth going to be globally?” He urged Tech to locate its next center of innovation “in a place of ambient ease” — meaning, presumably, Botswana. That reference to where future growth will be wasn’t just hyperbole, either. Here’s why:
4. Much of the future will be played out in Africa. In terms of median age, Botswana is one of the youngest nations in the world, with a median age of 23.5, according to World Economics. In the United States, it’s 38.1 years. I have often written about how rural communities in Virginia are aging; Botswana’s demographic experience is completely different from ours. The only communities in Virginia that come close are college towns — Lexington’s median age is 22.2, Radford’s 24.4, Harrisonburg is 25.7, Lynchburg is 28.6. Meanwhile, Roanoke is 38.5, many rural communities are north of 40 and even 50, with Highland County being the state’s oldest community with a median age of 59.3.
Put another way, Botswana is a whole country with the demographics of a college town — except that college students move away. While Botswana may be a young country overall, it’s actually on the older side in African terms. In much of Africa, the median age is in the teens. The Central African Republic is the youngest country in the world, with a median age of 14.7. Yes, you read that right. China and Japan are worried that their aging populations are causing those countries to shrink; African nations are wondering how they will provide jobs for all those young people. That’s why I said all the Tech students applauding at how much land Botswana has set aside for conservation is a First World response. Masisi said the danger is that younger generations in his country won’t understand why they’re being fenced off from much of the country, especially if they don’t have jobs. “Young people — they need space,” he said, warning about “the tension of distributing scarce resources.”
If all those young nations in Africa aren’t able to provide jobs for their young citizenry, well, only bad things will happen. But if they can — and by the numbers, Botswana seems an economic success story — then what happens? Then there are large, new markets of consumers. If you’re an American company, the future is global in the sense that’s where the growing markets will be. For a time, Virginia Tech used the marketing slogan “invent the future.” Masisi might say that future should be invented in Botswana. Instead, he concluded by giving a traditional good well wish in his arid country: “Pula.” It means “let there be rain.”
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Tech’s sole student from Botswana gets to meet her country’s president
When the president of Botswana arrived at Virginia Tech on Tuesday, a full array of university dignitaries was on hand to greet him — and one student.
That student was Naya Hughes, an 18-year-old freshman who has the distinction of being the only student from Botswana at Virginia Tech. Her parents called her recently to tell her their nation’s president would be visiting her school. Her family did have some connections: They’d heard the news from the country’s ambassador to the United States, a former squash partner of Hughes’ father, a prominent business consultant in Botswana.
Then the ambassador himself called her to make arrangements. “I was quite nervous; he’s certainly an important person, and I haven’t met enough important people in my life,” she said, “but he’s such a confident and kind person, it felt natural to speak to him.”
Botswana is a large country geographically (about the size of Texas), but much of it is dry and sparsely populated. The total population is just under 2.4 million; the capital of Gabarone has about the population of the Roanoke Valley, so people are often connected. Hughes’ brother was one of the first in the country to contract COVID. When he did, President Masisi “kindly called my family to make sure all was fine,” Hughes said. On Tuesday, “he remembered that.”
Hughes, a member of the Virginia Tech swim team, is also on Botswana’s national swim team, “so we talked about different competitions I’ve represented the country in.”
In Blacksburg, she says, people are often confused when she tries to explain where she’s from. When she says “southern Africa,” they think she means South Africa. “It gets complicated,” she said. But eventually the conversation turns to wildlife. “I have a fun time explaining about all the wildlife,” she said.