Florence Margai, an associate dean of Harpur College of Arts and Sciences and a professor in the geography department, died on Jan. 8 of natural causes. She was 52 years old.
Shortly after New Years, Margai went to a local hospital with flu-like symptoms. She was then transferred to the hospital at the University of Rochester, where she passed away from heart complications.
Margai moved to the United States from Sierra Leone in the 1980s and earned her master’s degree and doctorate in geography from Kent State University. She began her research on race and ethnicity at Hunter College before coming to Binghamton University in 1994, where she began as an assistant professor in the geography department. She climbed the ranks over her 20 years at BU, spending time as the dean of the Graduate School and ultimately as associate dean of Harpur College.
According to her husband, William Margai, her far-reaching work took her around the world. However, it was her students who were her inspiration and motivation for success.
“As an individual, she basically did everything,” he said. “She traveled all over the world on behalf of Binghamton University, and in the midst of everything she did, she really believed that her relations with students continued to enhance her as an individual.”
Margai’s work stretched throughout the Binghamton community as well, where she collaborated with local organizations to improve availability of healthy food for children and to raise awareness about the effects of food on health in the area.
“I think our community has lost an advocate,” said Lea Webb, the diversity specialist in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Binghamton University as well as a Binghamton City Council representative who worked closely with Margai. “A champion that didn’t have a public persona necessarily in terms of being on the news, but a big supporter of this community and it translated to other communities as well that she worked in.”
In addition to her research, Margai worked to prevent the spread of malaria in Sierra Leone and taught courses focused on environmental issues and health disparities.
According to BU President Harvey Stenger, Margai’s drive to work hard and help others succeed was what stood out about her.
“Florence impressed me with her positive and thoughtful approach,” Stenger said. “Advancing through the ranks of faculty positions and then taking leadership positions in the University requires one to have the perspective of helping others.”
Susan Strehle, a professor in the English department, took over Margai’s previous job as the dean of the Graduate School. She said she admired Margai’s ability to combine teaching with her leadership qualities.
“She was really a leader for the values that go with the University,” Strehle said. “She was also a really good teacher, very much liked, respected and treasured by students. It’s not that common that a strong academic person can also be a great leader of university functions like graduate school.”
Norah Henry, a colleague of Margai’s and the chair of the geography department, said that losing Margai is sad for everyone.
“Her passing will be a tremendous loss not only to the department but to the college and to the larger campus,” Henry said. “She was loved, she was very gracious, always had a smile, people who knew her really became attached to her.”
Her husband said that while this is a very hard time for the family, he is thankful to the University and all of the opportunities she was presented with throughout her life.
“We passionately miss her,” he said. “She was only 52, but based on what she did, the amount of people she touched, it feels like she must’ve lived ’til 85.”
Margai is survived by her husband and their two daughters, Luba and Konya.