Big Hearts, Big Hopes: What I Know about Liberia

Liberia Bracelet
Sporting a bracelet one of my former students gave me to celebrate my move to Liberia. “The flag is almost the same as the US flag!” she exclaimed. “That’s right, it is! Let me tell you why!” I replied and launched into teacher mode.

Everything I know about Liberia, I’ve learned in the past year.

First, some background.

About a year ago, my STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) students had their first Skype call with my fiance Andrew, a civil engineer who has experience working with refugees, has researched in and worked in various developing countries, and is currently a foreign service officer with USAID posted in Liberia, West Africa.  The call took place in conjunction with our study of the memoir The Other Side of the Sky, a story about a female protagonist’s struggles with growing up in war-torn Afghanistan, becoming a landmine victim, evading the Taliban, becoming a child refugee, and then finding her way as a Muslim immigrant teenager in early post-9/11 United States.  

Andrew spoke specifically about his work in the U.S., Haiti, Ethiopia, and West Bank and Gaza as the students asked unfiltered questions that ranged from “Are you ever scared that one of your development projects might fail?” to “Do you get looked at funny when you’re in developing countries because you’re a white American?”  Of course, these types of questions prompted laughter and commotion that was sometimes immature and sometimes nervous.  However, the students were quickly brought back to focus by Andrew’s frank, story-focused responses; and they were captivated by the personal, real-world look at an engineering career that they had never before considered.

While they later listened intently to the description of his experience in Liberia (its culture, people, and need for development), one of my students leaned over to me and said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could start a pen pal program with Liberian students?”  *DING!*  “Let’s make it happens,” I thought to myself.  When my students had an idea that spoke to my 3C’s (Culture, Communication, and Collaboration), I always took up the challenge to try and make it happen for them.

From that idea (and with Andrew’s pragmatic guidance to “keep it to two pages” lol), I worked on a proposal to submit to the U.S. Embassy in Liberia to request support for a digital pen pal program: we would connect through video conferences, take special care to involve female students to encourage gender parity in education (and from my end, gender parity in STEM education specifically) and to support the Let Girls Learn initiative, and focus on cultural exchange and a comparison of educational experiences between the students.  

Once the proposal was complete, it did not take long for the State Department to contact me with their interest!  We were matched with Cathedral Catholic High School in Monrovia, Liberia; and I collaborated with a public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy and my students to develop the agendas for our video conferences.  It was through these conferences that I not only learned more about Liberia’s past, present, and hopes for the future; but I also got connected to local Liberians who became interested in the program and wanted to show their support.  Through these individuals, I also learned a great deal about Liberia, and made great friends in the process!

Apart from the history of Liberia (which you can read more about here), these are some of the heavier points that stuck with me after my interactions with the students from Cathedral Catholic High School (CCHS).  Of course, these are distilled from many individual comments, questions, and (because they are teenagers, after all) humorous moments.  Even though we were always excited to talk to each other and our interactions took on the feeling of catching up with friends over lunch, there were some significant details that widened my students’ and my view of the world and dramatically shifted our perspectives:

  • Students must pay for their education.  This is typical in African nations, and the cost is what keeps many children out of school.  In addition to tuition, they must pay for books and uniforms.  Those who can afford it take great pride in their uniforms and find other ways to express their individuality–for instance, through the type of music they listen to.  Their socializing is also very school-focused because after school they help each other study and organize tutoring groups among friends.  After all of that, their time is mostly spent with family.
  • In school, students learn the theory of the concepts they study, but rarely (if ever) are afforded hands-on, practical application of those concepts.  This is mostly due to the lack of resources and financing. Not surprisingly, Liberia is having difficulty with the vast majority of its students being unable to pass the West African Senior School Certificate Exam.  My students were shocked to learn how different the education opportunities are between the US and Liberia.  Many of them reflected on how they personally take for granted the multitudes of opportunities they have each day that our Liberian friends do not.  It was an honor to watch so many of them find humility in this realization.
  • This country has seen more than their share of struggle.  Liberia was torn apart by civil war from 1989 to 2003, and is still only in the beginning stages of recovery (for a more personal view, watch this 2010 episode of No Reservations filmed by world traveler Anthony Bourdain).  In addition, the population was ravaged by the Ebola virus from 2014 to 2016, and continues to deal with poor water and sanitation infrastructure which leads directly to my next point.
  • Sanitation affects health, and health directly affects access to education.  In countries like Liberia, girls especially are often denied access to their education because schools do not have adequate or private sanitation facilities.  Look at the statistics on the benefits of education to a female, now scroll down to the last page of that same source, and consider the fact that 77% of the poorest females in Liberia (ages 7-16) have NEVER BEEN TO SCHOOL.
  • The students already know that it is up to them to propel Liberia into the future they deserve.  Can you imagine being 16-years-old, and feeling the burden of your country’s future on your shoulders?  The vision has been labeled Liberia 2030, and it outlines the hopes for concepts like national unity (the country has 22 different political parties, 16 different ethnic groups, and a cultural divide between indigenous tribes and urban dwellers, just to give an idea); it calls for the use reflective, data-driven decisions to guide the direction and growth of the nation; and it focus on the need for development and the use of natural resources to accomplish this.  I can only hope that the government begins to understand that their most valuable natural resource is the determined people who are hungry for a better existence and that quality education is the key to nurturing their successful involvement in a better future for Liberia.
Group from Catheral High
The first group of students to collaborate with us in our video conferences. Thank you to Cathedral Catholic High School, the US Embassy in Liberia, and PAO Paul Hinshaw with the State Department!

I am not even there yet, and Liberia has already taught me so much.  Most importantly, it has taught me how generous and supportive people can be toward each other.  Additionally, it has taught me what perseverance is, for instance, when a student from CCHS, knowing full well the odds stacked against him, declared that he wants to be a doctor so he can help as many people as he can in his country and build his own hospital in Liberia one day.

This is an important year for Liberia: there is a presidential election in October.  I am excited that I will be there to witness this historic event, and I am hopeful that the elected leaders will steer this struggling nation in the direction of progress and sustainable development.

I recall a quote from current Liberian president (the first elected female head of state in Africa!) Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s memoir This Child Will Be Great.  She wrote: 

“Public opinion matters; if it is pointed, focused, and intense, it can turn things around.  In this global age individuals are sometimes tempted to believe they have no power, not even collectively.  This is not true.  The public can make a difference if it is willing to take a position and stand up for a cause in which it believes.”

Education is a cause we should all fight for, and I definitely plan to do my part to continue encouraging young people to seize every opportunity for learning, to think big thoughts and ask big questions, and to share their stories so others can experience a similar widening of their world view that my students and I encountered.

3 thoughts on “Big Hearts, Big Hopes: What I Know about Liberia”

  1. I know that students “pay” for school here in the U.S. via the taxes their parents pay, but having to actually pay “tuition” is common in India, as well, and I think it definitely causes both students and parents to take education more seriously. However, then I think about some amazing students I’ve taught who might not have been able to afford school if they were charged tuition. I also think about some students I went to high school with. I was fortunate enough to attend a great private school, and there were students there who didn’t take education seriously and were only there because their parents paid: what a waste of resources that could’ve been spent on a more motivated child.

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