The following interview is part of the Council on African Studies’ Alumni Spotlight series featuring graduates from both the Master’s and Bachelor’s Degrees in African Studies. Wesley Dixon graduated with a BA in African Studies & Environmental Engineering in 2015.
Could you introduce yourself and tell me a little bit about your work?
My name is Wesley Dixon. I am a Yale College graduate, Class of 2015. I majored both in African Studies and Environmental Engineering. In my current work, I serve as the Special Assistant to the President and Secretary of the Board of Trustees at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
What are some of your passions, and what drives you today?
On a recreational level, I love cooking, I love exercising, I love making craft cocktails. They’re recreational things but they speak to a larger thematic through-line of building, maintaining, and holding community for myself and for others around me. These are things that I use as tools to help me do that in my personal life. I think both in my personal life and professional life, it’s important for me to facilitate helping strong communities exist or thrive. Professionally, that happens all over the place. Vassar is a small liberal arts college, which means that we have a lot of opportunity to create really close connections between our faculty, our administrators, our students, and our staff. And I think that I have done that in a variety of ways, and I think I’ve watched others who work with me do that as well. So that’s been a super fun part of my professional life that has a personal undergirding to it as well.
What led you to choose the African Studies major?
I chose the African Studies major because as a very pseudo-enlightened or thought-I-knew-everything sort of 18-year-old applying to Yale, I had an interest in the geopolitical issues happening at the time in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. I’m not African myself, but I’m an African American, and I had a friend in high school who was an immigrant from Nigeria. Through her, I got this lens to a world that I was connected to, but had very little knowledge of. I was also really good at math and science as a student in high school, and so I thought – oh my gosh, I’ll study environmental engineering and African Studies, and I’ll solve all of Nigeria’s geopolitical problems! That’s what got me started. I think as I grew more aware of the world and my role in it, that drew me away from that particular goal. But I think even though my entry point might have changed, I still found a deep appreciation for what I was learning and studying. When I was at school I also majored in environmental engineering, and I supplemented a lot of my engineering classes with public health classes at YSPH and classes at the Forestry School. So I had a lot of health and system population-oriented work on the STEM side of my education at Yale, and I was happy to add to that social science and humanities part of my education through the African Studies major. It gave me an opportunity to think about some of the issues I was thinking about in both the Forestry School, the Public Health School and the engineering department in a much more focused way, within this general African context. I really liked that opportunity to be able to apply those things in ways that – quite frankly – they weren’t being applied to by many of the other peers in the environmental engineering program and other parts of the school. It was a new experience for me and, I think, a less frequently put together combination of studies for the university or for the schools that I was a part of. But it was a great path and a great combination.
I’m so glad to hear that you were able to strike a balance between STEM education and social science and humanities education. Do you have any memories that stand out or encapsulate your time in African Studies at Yale?
One of the coolest and most unique experiences of being in the major was the language requirement. I took Yoruba – I’m not sure if Yoruba’s still offered now – but I took Yoruba when I was in school. That was just a great experience for me, because again, I quite frankly had not known of Yoruba the language before I got to Yale, and certainly didn’t know how to speak it before I got to Yale. But it provided me a really non-Western entry point into thinking about and learning about parts of Nigerian culture that I just would never have sort of been able to have access to in the way that I would have if I hadn’t taken Yoruba.
So it was a really fun opportunity to learn about food and to watch Nollywood movies and to read the news if you will, which at the time was – I mean, the news is always sort of a lot – but at the time I was in the program, the Ebola pandemic was happening. And so it was quite interesting to think about and read about in Yoruba language about how parts of Nigeria were talking about it or addressing it. So it was a great and unique opportunity for me to, one, learn a language I hadn’t heard about and, two, use that as a tool to become more familiar with the place that I also have not been to, but wanted to get more knowledge of.
How did you start out after you graduated? What was your early career decision-making process?
I actually thought I wanted to go to law school. I’m sure many people, particularly at Yale, have this thought, and some maybe have the thought and follow through with it and some probably don’t. I was in the latter half of the group. I did study for the LSAT, apply to law school, get into law school, but ended up not going, which I’m super happy for. When that happened, I still needed to figure out what I was going to do that was meaningful and exciting to me. There were many opportunities that I could have had, but I thought I wanted to try to find something that I felt was unique.
So I actually took a class my senior year of college – my senior year and last semester of college – with a professor of the Public Health School who had done a lot of global health work throughout Africa during her time at Yale. I took the class and I did really well, so she offered me an opportunity to work with her at her institute at Yale after I graduated. The institute was called the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute - I think it still exists today, or remnants of it. It was wonderful because my first job was serving as a program manager for GI July, where I managed some of our health-strengthening programs in a variety of countries: one in the UK, one in China, but also one in Ghana and one in Ethiopia. And so it was very exciting because I felt like the Africa side of my education was was helpful, and that I could draw upon it, given the work I was doing in those two countries in particular. Again, I didn’t choose the role because I felt like it was around my major, but I was happy once I was in this role that it did have some relevance to what I had studied. And of course I learned on the job.
For me, the meaningful part about this first role was that I actually was able to travel to the continent for the first time. I wasn’t able to go when I was an African Studies major. I had gotten some funding to go to Nigeria, but at the time it might’ve been on the state department’s red list or orange list or whatever – no travel list. It wouldn’t allow Yale funds to get you to Nigeria. And so I’d never been to the continent. But through my work at GI July, I got to go to Ethiopia and to Ghana.
So that was a really exciting job for me. I learned so much and grew so quickly – the person who was the faculty director of that institute was elected to be the President of Vassar College, where I am now, and given our experience, working together at GI July, she asked me to come serve with her in the role that I have at Vassar, which has been also fun, and different in a variety of ways. The cool thing is that, because of our shared background in global health, we actually have been able to establish a small number of efforts in the African continent even through Vassar. We have a new partnership with the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda, who we knew as partners and collaborators through our GI July and global health days. But we’ve also found a way to work with them from a liberal arts college point of view now at Vassar. So I’m happy to be able to say that African Studies has been relevant in my career.
How did your African Studies education influence you professionally and personally?
From a more sort of abstract point of view, African Studies as a discipline was new to me when I started school – certainly it was new to my loved ones. I mean, my parents were sort of like, oh my goodness, why would you go to Yale to study African Studies? Right? There’s so many things you can study, you can learn about this at home. For me though, it was helpful to have gone through the process of undertaking something new and unfamiliar for myself and for my loved ones. Because it honed my ability to articulate the value of a certain kind of education. For me, I think it was helpful to be clear about what the value was for myself and my career, and to have the courage to then go into new situations and to feel comfortable learning a new language or learning about a new culture or being in a space where there are those who might have more primary experiences. For example, there are classmates of mine who were African or from the continent, and being in that environment with folks who had a different kind of experience than me, being uncomfortable and still having something to offer that was substantive – I think was a very meaningful lesson that I took from my experience in African studies in particular. I’ve applied that in a host of ways outside of my academic personal or professional life, it’s been in all domains of my life.
I also think that the African studies major highlighted for me the value of situationally thinking hyper-local and understanding local context in ways that otherwise we might not be primed to do. I think it’s in vogue to think about systems and structures, and I think they’re important and they’re not divorced from the local either, but I think sometimes the focus on thinking big and thinking large pulls us away unintentionally from thinking about the actual, granular, local reality in a place or in a particular system. Having this regional focus has helped me sort of think large and small, or systems and granular at the same time in ways that I think make for effective problem-solving and for a larger, better impact. That has been another key takeaway from my experience in African Studies at Yale.
What advice would you give to a student is interested in African Studies?
I would say to keep going and to really invest in your education, to make the most of it – whatever that means for you, whether it’s asking questions, whether it’s asking for new courses, or questioning the curriculum in some ways. I think engaging in a variety of ways will be the best way for you to get the most out of the education that you are seeking to get. I also think studying African Studies is particularly strategic at this point in time. Quite honestly. I think the world is changing in such a way where Africa is – well, it’s always been important, but I think it’s coming into different people’s focus more than it had in the past. Having sort of a deeper understanding of some of the historical, cultural, and social things that play into the Africans past, present, and future – it’s just a really strategic advantage for students who are trying to enter a world that is super complicated, but super-connected at the same time.
It’s also going through exponential growth in a variety of ways. I’ve had friends who work at tech companies and who have been tapped to lead the opening of the new Facebook office in Nigeria, for example. And I’m sure a Yale student who was a part of the African Studies major would be well equipped to support that work or do that work somewhere else or start their own thing in Africa or help other companies and organizations start their own efforts in Africa somewhere. So I think it’s a very timely thing to engage in. And I think also it can be a very personally rewarding experience for any student who goes into that major.
Is there anything else you’d like to share any exciting plans on the horizon?
I’m happy to be able to travel again soon or in the relatively near future and make somewhere in Africa part of that travel list. But no, I’ve been super excited about what I’ve been able to do after Yale and I’m excited that I’m able to do more than what I’m doing right now in the future. I would just encourage people to take advantage of all the resources that Yale has to offer. I think it’s hard to recognize how much access you have while you’re at Yale, but it’s easy once you’re gone from Yale to recognize what you had, but probably didn’t take advantage of. So I would say, be relentless about that while you’re at Yale and just make sure that you take advantage of all the resources that they have available to you while you’re there.