November 20, 2019
Driving educational innovation
by Alex Z. Salinas (B.A. ’11)
During high school in India and with her family, Sunitha Jenarius (B.S. ’06) remembers teaching math, science and English to young girls in slums.
“The high school I went to was run by nuns,” Jenarius said. “Every Friday, we brought onions and potatoes to the people living in the slums.”
Bringing education to those in need is integrated into Jenarius’ identity. Today, she is director of strategy for Academic City College in the Republic of Ghana — a university launched in Fall 2018 in the West African country’s capital, Accra.
Jenarius is responsible for helping establish the university, from hiring administrative leaders and creating academic strategies to admissions and marketing. She incorporates innovation-driven learning into the college’s academics and partners with local and global organizations to promote institutional development.
So how did the native Indian end up in higher education in West Africa? Drive, and her willingness to take chances.
After reading about St. Mary’s University online, Jenarius enrolled without ever having traveled to the United States.
“I had a long layover in Frankfurt, Germany, and when I couldn’t find anyone in the terminal who spoke English, I panicked,” Jenarius said. “In that moment, I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right decision.”
Then she arrived at St. Mary’s and something clicked.
“It was a leap of faith — and it worked,” said the Computer Engineering major of the warm community of students she discovered. “I was definitely homesick at first. But soon I diversified my friend circle, and that helped me in the long run.”
Jenarius forged close bonds with her classmates and professors, especially those in the Department of Engineering. Tapping into her proficiency in mathematics, she tutored undergraduates and researched at the Southwest Research Institute.
Upon graduating, Jenarius enrolled at Purdue University and earned a master’s in Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2008.
After Purdue, Jenarius was hired by Deloitte and worked in management consulting in New York. Her Deloitte clients included Fortune 500 companies in finance, and she remembered “a steep learning curve due to the competitive nature of work.”
After several years there and then a year with a business venture in India, she took an opportunity to establish a commodity trading business in Africa, which she called “a place where an individual can make a lot of genuine impact.”
In 2016, through her roommate there, she met people involved with the Eureka Africa Group — an organization that would soon open a new college campus. The college aims to deliver much-needed, affordable, modern education to develop a competitive labor pool in Ghana.
The Academic City College, located on a 12-acre plot with new facilities to house up to 3,000 students, recently completed its first academic year.
The initial 45 students divided into the college’s three schools — Engineering and Technology, Business, and Communication Arts — “went through a rigorous interview process because we want graduates who aren’t afraid of change and who want to drive change,” she said.
“High schools in Africa are very traditional in that students aren’t encouraged to speak up in class,” Jenarius said. “So what you often see are bright students who are stifled because of their learning environment.”
At Academic City College, learning is, instead, holistic and hands-on. Professors require students to apply concepts from the classroom to solve problems in the area, such as trash collection.
“All the first-year Engineering students are working on a smart trashcan — a trashcan that’s artificially intelligent,” Jenarius said.
The college’s curriculum is “deliberately planned to get our students thinking on an industry-level so that when they apply for jobs, they’re competitive.”
This is why Jenarius spends much of her time networking with local businesses, “meeting CEOs of Microsoft and Google in the area to find out what they look for and where our gaps are.”
Jenarius said her range of business experiences, plus her engineering background fostered at St. Mary’s, plays heavily in who she’s become.
“Little did I know I’d be in Africa driving entrepreneurship and education,” she said. “I love exploring, and I love building things. Whatever the future holds, it will be with me building to solve a challenge.”