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Ferris Professor Awarded Fulbright Scholarship to Teach in Sierra Leone

Bill SmithFerris State University professor Bill Smith is on a mission to improve the overall well-being of one of the world’s poorest countries, and a Fulbright Scholarship may help him do just that.

Smith, a professor in the College of Business, was awarded the Fulbright Scholar grant to teach and conduct research in Sierra Leone, a country slowly emerging from years of brutal civil war that devastated its economy. Smith will teach a course in small business management/entrepreneurship at the University of Sierra Leone in Freetown, the country’s capital.

“There is so much to do,” said Smith, of Evart. “We have the potential to affect a large number of people.  We can make a mark.”

Smith became associated with the West African country 18 years ago, after meeting a man from Sierra Leone who was studying law in the U.S.

“He told me I should visit his country, so I did,” Smith said. “I couldn’t believe what I saw.”

Since then, Smith has enveloped himself in learning about life in West Africa, visiting often for extended periods of time. He found himself in the middle of several conflicts during the country’s war, which lasted from 1991 to 2002. But that didn’t deter him.

Instead, he became immersed, selling used tires and clothing wholesale to local merchants, becoming a partner in a company that transported passengers and freight by boat up and down the coast of West Africa, and developing relationships with various government ministries that effect commerce. He even negotiated disputes with harbor masters, purchased and sold cows and coffee, and owned a street taxi.

What he learned is that the majority of Sierra Leone’s general population has no access to mentoring or training in commerce other than for the purpose of providing better-skilled employees for established, non indigenous merchants.

“My goal is to help students rise above their present socioeconomic position in Freetown by providing the mentoring, necessary education and skills needed to establish and successfully manage their own business,” Smith said. “This will be a real practical course.”

He plans to use lectures, readings and research assignments, guest speakers and field trips, and will assign actual small business projects. He will continue mentoring students who take his class through online resources and short follow-up visits at his own expense.

“The follow-up visits will be necessary to complete my mission,” he said. “The end goal of creating a new generation of merchants cannot be reached overnight.” 

Smith will leave in January 2013 for a five-month stay that will include working with Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Agriculture to examine the supply chain of the domestic rice industry.

The problem with the industry, he said, is inefficient processing and inefficiencies in the rice production supply chain.

“Simply increasing yields in the field will help a few avoid hunger, but will not improve the overall well-being of the nation,” he said. “I want to plug a leaky barrel … I think this will provide the biggest bang for the buck.”

His goal with the research is to create a processing industry, perfect the transportation system, open new retail rice shops owned by the farmers and lower the country’s dependence on foreign rice. He knows it will be difficult.

Smith, who came to Ferris in 1985, is up to the task. When he’s not teaching up to 160 College of Business students each semester, he’s engaged in international commerce, mostly in West Africa, Russia and Costa Rica. Sometimes Ferris students accompany him as part of a study abroad program.

Smith, who has bachelor’s, master’s and juris doctorate degrees from Michigan State University, has a diverse background from which to draw in teaching his courses. He served as an Army sergeant in Vietnam, was a reserve officer in Naval Intelligence, an attorney and a businessman. He’s worked on numerous local, state and national committees, and served on President George H.W. Bush’s national campaign staff.

Smith believes his international work is his greatest accomplishment.

“I want my students to see the big picture through my experiences,” he said. “The Fulbright will enhance that goal and certainly promote awareness of Ferris.”

The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the U.S. and the people of other countries. Recipients of Fulbright grants are selected on the basis of academic or professional achievement, as well as demonstrated leadership potential in their fields.

For Smith, the Fulbright offers him a “feeling of legitimacy.”

“For me, on a personal level, it’s a significant academic accomplishment,” he said.

Smith, 65, is married to Donna, who also works at Ferris. They have a daughter, Anne, and a son, Tom.