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David Heleniak (AB ’67) came to appreciate the value of global perspectives as a newly minted LSA graduate pursuing his master’s degree in economics at the London School of Economics. There, far from Ann Arbor and his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota, he was fortunate to study alongside students from every corner of the world as he eagerly soaked up news of world affairs and politics.
Heleniak also quickly learned how powerfully the shared experience of higher education could bond him to his peers, helping them overcome language and cultural barriers and achieve historical outcomes.
“It was an international community. We were from all over the world, every continent, and I learned that we were really more similar than different,” he said.
When Heleniak’s corporate legal career took him around the globe, from the US Treasury Department and international financial hubs to nations with developing and evolving economies, that initial insight helped him foster enduring professional and personal partnerships. Heleniak spent the bulk of his career at the multinational law firm of Shearman & Sterling, where he ran the Hong Kong office in the early 1980s. There, he worked with Chinese leaders, including future Chinese president Jiang Zemin, as the first Western lawyer to represent China in a historic joint venture with an American company.
But it was Africa that truly captured his imagination early on, and it is to Africa that he has returned many times. Since his days as a student in London, he has counted numerous Nigerians among his friends and business associates, both on Wall Street and internationally. In post-apartheid South Africa, he worked closely with the Oppenheimer family as the principal outside corporate counselor for diamond company DeBeers and its parent company, the global mining corporation Anglo American. Later, he enjoyed forging new business relationships in Africa, meeting with South African President Thabo Mbeki and advising Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obosanjo on oil and gas exports.
“There is so much economic and intellectual opportunity for Africa,” noted Heleniak, citing Nigeria’s rich natural resources and young, rapidly expanding population as an example. With nearly 220 million people today, almost half of whom are under the age of 15, Nigeria will surpass the United States to become the third most populous nation in the world by 2050. African countries are poised to grow their economies and influence globally, and Heleniak predicts they’ll quickly move from replicating and economizing ideas that were pioneered and have taken hold elsewhere in the world to invention, discovery, and innovation on their own soil.
It was no surprise, then, that he was excited to return to Africa in a new capacity when, as a member of the LSA Dean’s Advisory Council, he was asked to chair a University of Michigan subcommittee focusing on the continent as part of an initiative to assess U-M’s global impact. This time, instead of boardrooms, diamond mines, and presidential palaces, Heleniak had a chance to visit Africa’s universities. He recounts that in Ethiopia, he saw firsthand how an affiliation with the University of Michigan Medical School had helped improve medical training and practice for doctors, resulting in better care for Ethiopian citizens. As a result, he began to think about how liberal arts and sciences students from African universities could benefit from a link to U-M in other ways.
The fact that we weren’t seeing a lot of students who were from Africa on our campus was a concern. Increasing their presence, those viewpoints that are unique to growing up and studying and living in Africa, is crucial to the center’s mission.
Creating New Ties with Africa
Former African Studies Center (ASC) Director Andries Coetzee took notice of Heleniak’s engagement with the continent and extended an invitation for him to join ASC’s Advisory Board. “David's enthusiasm for and knowledge of the continent made him ideal as a member of our newly formed Advisory Board, and I was very happy when he agreed to join the Board,” said Coetze.
In 2018, Heleniak and Coetzee traveled together to Johannesburg for the ASC Advisory Board's first meeting.
“At the board meetings, we focused on how to create new ties with African universities and African scholars. The fact that we weren’t seeing a lot of students who were from Africa on our campus was a concern. Increasing their presence, those viewpoints that are unique to growing up and studying and living in Africa, is crucial to the center’s mission,” said Heleniak.
The conversations that started in 2018 inspired the Heleniak-Carstarphen Graduate Student Scholars Fund, which Heleniak established with his wife, Meria Carstarphen, Ed.D., who is an urban education expert and consultant, Gallup Senior Scientist, and former superintendent of schools for several major US school districts.
The Heleniak-Carstarphen Graduate Student Scholars Fund seeks to attract students from Africa, providing a year of support through ASC to a master’s student who earned their undergraduate degree from a university in Africa. The couple’s gift is the largest to-date for the center and also includes a PhD application fund to aid in recruiting African students to U-M PhD programs.
“It is our hope that the fund will act as a magnet to attract African graduate students, even those who have never visited the United States, to encourage them to envision themselves studying in the US and at the University of Michigan,” said Heleniak. “It is important that, as Africa continues to grow and develop, U-M be clearly recognized as a preeminent international institution.”
The Heleniak-Carstarphen fund is the most recent of Heleniak and Carstarphen’s gifts to LSA. As a long-time LSA donor, he has previously established several need-based scholarship funds, including one which supports students in the Comprehensive Studies Program. Another fund reflects his views on the importance of gaining international experience and supports global study abroad experiences for undergraduates. The Heleniak-Carstarphen Graduate Student Scholars Fund extends Heleniak’s pattern of giving with the intention of providing opportunities for students to expand their geographic and intellectual boundaries, benefit from exposure to entirely new perspectives, and share their own experiences and cultures to enrich the university community.
First Heleniak-Carstarphen Graduate Student Scholar Named in 2022
The inaugural Heleniak-Carstarphen Graduate Student scholar, Omowumi Banjo-Ogunleye, has been joyfully sharing the traditions and tenets of her Yoruba culture with enthusiastic LSA undergrads for the past several years. She worked in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies as a Yoruba instructor and cultural exchange ambassador through the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FTLA) Program for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 academic years.
Banjo-Ogunleye began master’s studies at U-M in Fall 2022 in the Masters in International and Regional Studies (MIRS) African studies specialization program. Her research will focus on the impact of culture and religion on gender-based violence and victimhood in West Africa.
“Culture and religion in Africa have been seen as a social standard for people on how to live their lives and how their relationships with other people should be structured. Culturally, the husband is the head of the family, and women are expected to be submissive to their husbands…It leads women to be intimidated,” said Banjo-Ogunleye, a graduate of the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, where she studied the English language. “There is immense pressure to be cultural. I am interested in how these beliefs have affected the victims of gender-based violence.”
Following completion of her master’s degree, Banjo-Ogunleye plans to remain in the United States to pursue a PhD in women’s and gender studies. She is particularly interested in global feminism and gender issues and would like to expand her research on domestic and gender-based violence to include other regions of Africa and the African diaspora, as well as male victims, noting that “the common theme for victims of gender-based violence is their reluctance or inability to tell their stories. I would like my work to give these victims a voice, to help them not only speak up but to be heard.”
“The Heleniak-Carstarphen award has availed me of the opportunity to achieve my goals, to more easily pursue my graduate program in the United States, where you have access to state-of-the-art facilities that offer more advanced techniques of textual and cultural analysis in conducting research, and are given the liberty to express yourself,” said Banjo-Ogunleye.
She especially values how approachable and open faculty and scholars at U-M and American universities are in their willingness to meet and discuss ideas with students.
Heleniak looks forward to the impact Banjo-Ogunleye and future Heleniak-Carstarphen Scholars will have on Africa’s future by establishing such collegial connections and strengthening the ties between African institutions and the University of Michigan.
“As a leading research university, almost anything Michigan does so well—economics, business, technology, research—will be beneficial to Africa as they grow and develop more and more of their own completely new ideas and technologies,” he said. “The University of Michigan can and should be a meaningful part of that development.”
The common theme for victims of gender-based violence is their reluctance or inability to tell their stories. I would like my work to give these victims a voice, to help them not only speak up but to be heard.