A girl's journey: From dollar-a-day Malawi to elite US prep school
The star scholar of a program that sends girls to school in Malawi spent the summer at Phillips Exeter Academy. But as she returns home, challenges loom.
Idah Savala is navigating several new experiences these days: going ice skating, eating a snow cone, shopping at Wal-Mart – not to mention her first airplane ride and her first trip beyond the borders of her home country, Malawi.Skip to next paragraph
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She's one of 17 girls who go to secondary school in Malawi thanks to scholarships from Advancing Girls' Education in Africa (AGE), a small nonprofit organization founded four years ago with donations from Monitor readers. Through her hard work at school, the kindness of a stranger who sponsored her trip, and the efforts of AGE, she was able to attend one of the premier secondary schools in the United States.
What is driving Idah in her endeavor is not the new experiences themselves, but the knowledge of what she will do with them when she returns home. She wants to use her time at Phillips Exeter in pursuit of her goal: helping to ease the shortage of doctors in Malawi by becoming one.
But Idah worries about finding a way to continue her education after secondary school, when AGE support ends. Her story is an example of what the organization has managed to achieve in just a few years of existence. But it also highlights the hurdles to come: With many of its students just a year away from graduation, AGE has begun a new focus on preparing them for life after secondary school.
"One of the things we've had to learn is that scholarships alone are not enough, because the challenges [the girls] face are too much," says Xanthe Ackerman, AGE's founder and a board member. "Once we get them into the schools, how do we target those challenges?… It's been a learning process in how much it takes to help these girls break through an incredibly dense ceiling."
AGE began in 2005 after a story by Ms. Ackerman in The Christian Science Monitor detailed what it was like to live on $1 a day in rural Malawi. Readers wrote in asking how they could help, and AGE, which is unaffiliated with the Monitor, was soon founded with their donations. AGE has sent more than 20 girls to school, funding about 60 scholarship years.
The program will admit two new students in the next academic term, says Ben Chambers, AGE's program director in Malawi. But the new focus is not on expanding the program. Instead, the aim is to bolster it with career guidance and academic mentoring so girls have the best chance to succeed – in school and afterward.
AGE will have its work cut out for it: When Christine Beggs, a recent graduate of Tufts University's Global Master of Arts Program, evaluated the group this summer, she found that students knew little about the details and realities of postsecondary school opportunities.