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.

Mary Knox Merrill/ Staff
Physics class: Idah Savala (c.) attended Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., on scholarship this summer. The program she attends in Malawi was funded by donations from Monitor readers.

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.

In an unlikely journey that most girls in Malawi can only dream of, this 16-year-old from a rural village spent the summer attending Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

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.

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.

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."


How to help:
AGE Africa
c/o Sarah Lance
54 William Street, No. 2
Medford, MA 02155

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