By Dibussi Tande (originally published in Summit Magazine)
One of the highlights of the Fako America 15th annual convention in Chicago, USA, was the award of plaques of excellence to a number of individuals for their contribution towards the advancement of Fako division and its inhabitants.
Dr. William Nganje receiving the 2009 Best Journal Article Award from the Food Distribution Research Society in Broomfield, Colorado
One of the recipients was Dr. William Nganje, an Associate Professor at the MSMA – W.P. Carey School of Business, at Arizona State University (ASU), who was recognized for his role in assisting Fako and Cameroonian students in the United States throughout his teaching and research career.
Upon graduation, he worked as a Root and Tubers Research Project (ROTREP) economist at the Research Institute (IRA-Ekona) in Cameroon. His research team received an award for excellence in development and commercialization of improved tissue culture and root resistant tuber varieties. The ROTREP project awarded William a scholarship to study Agricultural Economics at the University of Urbana-Champaign’s College of Agriculture, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences. In May 1998, Nganje earned his Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics, with specialization in Agribusiness Finance. He received the Outstanding Student Award for excellence in academic performance and outreach. He landed a tenured track faculty position in the Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics at North Dakota State University (NDSU) in Fargo, North Dakota.
In 2005, Dr. Nganje was promoted to the rank of Associate Professor of Agribusiness and Finance. This was a timely recognition of his dedication to teaching and research which had earned him numerous teaching awards over the years such as the 2005 Western Agricultural Economic Association Outstanding Undergraduate Teacher with less than ten years experience, Earl and Dorothy Foster Excellence in Teaching Award in 2004 and the Outstanding Advisor Award for Excellence in Advising in 2002. Professor Nganje’s excellence was not limited to the classroom. He also became a nationally recognized researcher who received numerous research grants from governmental and non-governmental sources.
“Dean” of the Cameroon Community in Fargo
When Dr. Nganje came to NDSU in the late 1990s, there were very few African students at the University. By the time he left, some eight years later, the very frigid North Dakota had become a destination of choice for many Cameroonian students. According to Dr. Agnes Lyonga who recently obtained her doctorate from NDSU, Dr. Nganje made it possible and easy for several Cameroonians and African students to gain admission into the Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics and into the Great Plains Institute of Food Safety at NDSU by offering them graduate research assistantships through his research grant funds which covered the cost of full tuition and a monthly stipend for living expenses.
In cases where a Cameroonian student was seeking admission in another department at NDSU, he would contact his colleagues to help place the student on a financial assistantship or to guarantee tuition waiver with the Graduate School.
As Dr. Lyonga recalls, “at NDSU, Dr. Nganje was our academic and moral mentor, helping with students’ research projects. He did not only served as an academic advisor to many but also provided temporarily accommodation to many Cameroonian and African students at the early stages of acculturation“.
Dr. Julius Ngwendson, a University of North Dakota alumnus from Cameroon, also recalls how Dr. Nganje came to his aid in time of need: “When I sponsored my wife in the undergraduate nursing program, being a student myself at the time, I ran into financial difficulty. Dr. Nganje was there to help us. Dr. Nganje helped to make our life in the university easier”.
Dr. Nganje was also instrumental in creating a vibrant African association which met alternatively in Fargo and in the city of Grand Forks. “He was also very supportive and encouraging to our small African association that was hosted in Fargo and Grand Forks alternatively. He was always present and participating in all meetings despite the weather which is not very favorable here in the winter”, recalls Dr. Ngwendson.
In 2007 Dr. Nganje moved with his family to the State of Arizona, which with its regular 100+ degrees weather is far hotter than Garoua. He says that after living in a “freezer” for close to a decade, he and his wife Annette were ready for a warmer climate that reminded them of home. Nonetheless, during the excessively hot Arizona summer, he sometimes finds himself missing the more temperate climate and snow-covered landscape of the American Midwest.
Over a year after he left NDSU and North Dakota, Dr. Nganje’s impact is still being felt. As Dr. Lyonga points out, “In one way or the other, most Cameroonian students admitted at NDSU even today came through Dr. Nganje’s connection... His influential role in bringing and mentoring Cameroonians and African students at NDSU will be remembered forever”.
As Professor Nganje settles down in Arizona, he has simply picked up where he left off and is already leaving his mark as a top scholar, teacher and community leader. In January 2008, he received a research grant from the US Department of Homeland Security, worth a quarter of a million dollars, to research on ways to ensure the safety of the US food supply, particularly produce from Mexico. His research papers have been published in prestigious journals such as the Review of Agricultural Economics; Food Policy; Agricultural Economics; Journal of International Agricultural Trade and Development; Agribusiness, An International Journal; Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics; Agricultural Finance Review, Journal of Food Distribution Research, and the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.
When all is said and done, however, Professor Nganje is first and foremost an educator and a teacher. Just as in NDSU where he was a student favorite, students at ASU have also come to appreciate his work ethic, dedication and empathy. As one former student gushed on an online forum, “This guy is AWESOME! … [he] is always excited to be in class [and is] more than willing to help”.
Professor Nganje’s community activism has also made him a pillar of the Fako Diaspora community in the United States. A member of Fako America , the umbrella organization of Fako elements in the United States, Professor Nganje strongly believes in preserving and promoting the culture of his native Fako and passing it on to Children born in America to give them a sense of home. To date, Professor Nganje and his family are committed to attend all Fako America convention; in fact the convention is the highlight of his family’s summer vacation. To Professor Nganje, Fako America is not just about culture; it is also a vehicle for helping in the development of Fako division. He is the architect of Fako America’s Scholarship program which he coordinated for about six years. During that period, over 10 million FCFA was disbursed to the best performing and underprivileged students in Fako division – what he describes as “human capital investment”. He has also been an active member in the Bakweri Land Claims Committee (BLCC-USA) which is leading the campaign for the restoration and preservation of Bakweri ancestral lands.
Professor Nganje’s story is that of an individual who never forgot where he came from even as he moved to the top of his profession in a foreign land; one who never forgot the role that the community played in his individual success. Today, his active role in the Cameroonian community in the United States is his own way of giving back, of making sure that the younger generation of Cameroonians continues the tradition of community service in a society where individualism reigns supreme.
Professor Nganje is married to Dr. Annette Enanga Nganje, a Pharmacist and no-nonsense Bakweri mother of four kids; the 17 year-old twins, Willann Ikome and Willette Epupa, 12 year-old Elizabeth Enjema, and nine-year old Simon Elive.
On Monday, November 2, 2009, Prof. Nganje received another feather in his cap when he received, for the second year running, the Presidential Award from the Food Distribution Research Society for “Excellence in Research and Communication.” The ceremony took place at the Omni Hotel in Broomfield, Colorado.