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.
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The young women in the AGE program face tough hurdles after graduation if they decide to deviate from the cultural norm in many families – returning home and getting married.Skip to next paragraph
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Admissions to Malawi's two public universities are extremely competitive, with thousands of students vying for hundreds of seats. Even if students are accepted, they must confront the challenge of paying for it. Mr. Chambers says AGE is figuring out how to help students develop contingency plans, like starting small businesses, working in government as health-surveillance assistants at rural clinics, or working with small organizations at the village level.
Idah, a self-assured young woman with a quick smile who sings in the glee club at Exeter, knows the difficulties she faces upon her return. "It's hard, and I know it's hard, but when I work hard, I think I can make it," she says. She is less sure about paying for university schooling.
When she's not at Malawi's Providence Girls Secondary School, where she shares a room with 20 other girls, Idah lives with her single mother and siblings in the rural village of Misomali. "Most girls in my village who are the same age as me, they don't go to school," says Idah. "They got married and they have children. I don't have friends in my village. "
She says she's not interested in boys or marriage at the moment – she has other priorities. "I want to get married when I'll be independent," she says.
Idah's time at Exeter became possible when Claude Hoopes, an alumnus and former trustee, learned of her drive and academic achievement from Ackerman. Mr. Hoopes contacted Ethan Shapiro, director of the summer school, who agreed to admit Idah on a full scholarship. Hoopes paid for her travel to the US.
"It's ... amazing ... to imagine what she's seeing for the first time," says Hoopes. "We had a concern [about whether] the shock of all of that would be too much, and to her total singular credit, she just has a confidence and a sense of purpose ... to such a degree that she has taken to the opportunity far better than we could have imagined."
Mr. Shapiro says the school would "absolutely" be open to hosting more Malawian students, and Idah says she talked with the Exeter admissions office about the possibility of returning after her graduation in Malawi for an academic year at Exeter. But AGE officials are circumspect about sending more students to Exeter, saying it's too early to judge whether it would be productive. They are concerned about Idah's transition back to Malawi – and whether she will be satisfied with her life there after all she's seen and experienced in the US.
But Idah doesn't seem worried. Yes, her sisters may covet her new tennis shoes, and she won't have access to as many books when she's home. But she says the science classes have helped prepare her for a career in the medical field.
"Most people, when they study medicine, after finishing, they go to different countries to work," Idah says. "But I want to help Malawi."
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