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Living classroom on a green hillside

9:00 AM  Jun 8th, 2017
by Debbie Juniewicz ’90

From a St. Joseph medal and the promise of $12,000, great things continue to grow. Building on faith and opportunity, the university founded on that promise is helping to create a school in Malawi, Africa. It will be a hub for experiential learning and research initiatives, supporting development in Malawi as well as the futures of the UD students who will serve there.

Amidst the winding, rugged dirt roads and atop the rolling green hillside, brick and mortar buildings have taken shape.

The sturdy man-made walls are in sharp contrast to the natural beauty, with the Great African Rift Valley and Lake Malawi both in view. It won’t be long before students and teachers walk among the classroom buildings and dormitories of the Wasambo High School campus. But it’s not the physical structures that will have the greatest impact; it’s what the buildings represent — opportunity.

“People in Malawi value education above almost everything else,” said Matt Maroon ’06, founder of Determined to Develop, a Karonga-based nongovernmental organization in Malawi. “I’ve seen mothers sacrifice food in order to pay school tuition for their children. I’ve seen families sell their last goat to send their promising son to the first term of high school, not knowing at all where they will get the money for the second term, let alone the following three years.”

Maroon has found the common theme in this land-locked African nation to be one that resonates more than 8,000 miles away on the campus of the University of Dayton, where students, faculty and alumni have worked with Maroon’s organization to make the school a reality for Malawian children.

“Faith — it’s people’s faith that tomorrow will be a brighter day with hard work, persistence and an education,” said Maroon, who first visited Malawi in 2006 during a year of service with the Society of Mary. “It’s the idea that one’s current condition need not assign them a set path in life, but that they have the choice if only given the opportunity to find the road toward prosperity. And that education is the surest way to lift one’s self to a state where one can comfortably, and humbly, take care of a family.”

It’s a faith reinforced by Flyer research, volunteerism and fundraising, from students and faculty in engineering, education, arts and sciences, and business. It is a faith that will also be passed on to future UD students, who will benefit from having the school as an experiential learning base. Wasambo High School, when it opens Sept. 1, 2017, will showcase the best of the University’s transdisciplinary, liberal arts education in the Marianist spirit of partner-based community building.

“UD is taking the exact opposite approach of an ivory tower, instead realizing that its talents and treasure can make a concrete and lasting impact on education in a global context — and that’s happening on the ground in Africa,” Maroon said. “This is the Marianist approach, to be around the table with the people whom we serve, partners in development and uplifting one another along the way. It’s intentional. It’s grounded in reality, and it’s faithful.”

A great need

The Society of Mary, UD’s founding order, is deeply rooted in Malawi, opening Nkhata Bay Secondary School in the early 1960s and, shortly thereafter, operating Chaminade Secondary School — which still educates students today — in Karonga. The Marianist sisters this year will open their own mission in Malawi and focus on teaching.

The population statistics of Malawi underscore the need for educational institutions: Close to 47 percent of the population is 14 years old or younger, and another 20 percent is between 15 and 24. The median age in Malawi — a country with an estimated 976,300 people living with AIDS or HIV — is just 16 ½ years old. According to Maroon, there are significant hurdles in the Malawian education system, including access to high school and quality education.

“Only about 18 percent of eighth-grade graduates, students in our area who have finished primary school, are able to continue on to high school because of capacity,” Maroon said. “There are simply not enough schools or room at the existing schools.”

Standard Malawian curriculum has not traditionally emphasized enrichment and experiential learning.

“We want to take the Malawian model — based off the British system — and infuse it with some of the best practices internationally,” Maroon said.

UD Department of Teacher Education Chair Connie Bowman is excited about her department’s involvement at Wasambo. Faculty and students will assist in professional development for teachers in Malawi, focusing on student-centered instruction and active engagement for learning, as well as curriculum development and recruitment.

“Many of our graduates are teaching in foreign countries,” Bowman said, “and we believe Malawi will be an excellent place for them to engage in teaching and infuse their training in best practices through the educational field.” 

The first phase — which is currently under construction — is a boys’ high school, set up in an English boarding school style. The long-term plan includes a girls’ high school and a technical college.

The desired outcomes for Wasambo High School are threefold: provide a world-class education for the students; create a teacher training program that enables instructors to learn and implement best practices; and create a “living classroom” as part of the UD partnership where UD students and faculty can analyze challenges and work with Malawians to develop solutions.

The new school is located in Sangilo Village, Chilumba area in the Karonga District. This district is several hundred square miles with a population of about 60,000. Students will come from all around Malawi with an emphasis on offering positions and scholarships to local students. The impact of the school, however, extends well beyond the region.

“This is a benefit to the nation,” said Scotch Kondowe, Karonga District education manager. “In line with Malawi’s development strategies, strengthening secondary education is a top priority. To have a partnership with Determined to Develop and the University of Dayton is a welcome concept, and we are glad that outside stakeholders are taking interest in supporting government through the development of secondary education.”

While students will soon experience the immediate benefits of attending the new school, long-term benefits are expected for generations to come.

“Lack of education is a barrier to development,” said Senior Chief Wasambo (pictured left), the traditional authority and custodian of all land and culture in the region. “Having the school will change lives and opportunities, from poverty to prosperity, and it will transform the community for the better long term.”

The school, not coincidentally, is named in the chief’s honor, as it was he who allocated the 120 acres of land to Maroon in 2013 to establish the campus. The cost? Anyone familiar with the story of Father Leo Meyer and the purchase of the property on which the University of Dayton now stands will find the answer remarkable. Maroon paid about $12,000 to compensate a few local farmers for the land. In 1850, Father Meyer purchased 120 acres from John Stuart for the promise of $12,000 and a medal of St. Joseph as collateral. Maroon, likewise, presented Chief Wasambo with a St. Joseph medal.

Each entering class will consist of 80 boys from more than 50 elementary schools in the area. Some students at the all-boys boarding school will pay tuition, while others will receive scholarships. Looking forward, Wasambo will have 300-plus students onsite in four years.

“The community can see that there are not enough schools in our area,” said Alick Zika Mkandawire, a community liaison officer. “The schools we do have don’t have good learning materials and don’t have enough teachers. The new school will provide these, and the community is excited for good things to come.”

The Marianist way

Maroon’s connections with the University of Dayton have evolved and benefitted both the Malawians and UD students.

Students have worked on issues of human rights in Malawi with Determined to Develop since 2010. Since 2011, the School of Engineering’s ETHOS program has worked with Malawians on projects from renewable technology to potable water. The political science department initiated the Malawi Research Practicum on Rights and Development in 2013. The practicum, now housed in the Human Rights Center, pairs UD students with Malawian university students in-country to tackle development questions that give Determined to Develop insight into how it can best serve the community.

“It’s amazing when we have our UD students here, as they can dig into an issue and, with their Malawian counterparts, help us understand where we should focus our efforts,” Maroon said. “Their research gives credibility to our mission and influences the direction we take our programming.”

UD student research has been broad in scope, ranging from assessing community access to clean water to an assessment of gender-based violence against girls. From an examination of health systems to agricultural studies, the students work hand-in-hand with their Malawian counterparts.

“UD’s partnership with Determined to Develop and the people of Sangilo Village has grown organically over the years and has really been defined by the priorities and vision of our Malawian partners,” said Jason Pierce, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s heartening to see the collaborative spirit that has emerged on campus and with our partners.  Folks just get it and are eager to play a role.”

Collaboration has translated to action, and there’s no better example than Wasambo High School. UD practicum students have examined local challenges in access and quality of secondary school education. ETHOS students conducted land surveys and are helping with plans and construction. Teacher education faculty and students are working on curriculum and teacher training.

“In my mind, the Wasambo project vividly illustrates the capacity of UD as a comprehensive university, one that leverages students and faculty from engineering, education, business, and arts and sciences to find localized solutions to global challenges,” said Pierce, who as former chair of the political science department initiated the Malawi practicum.

More than an education

There is a buzz of anticipation surrounding the opening of Wasambo. Sophie Phiri (pictured left), a local mother and cook, is excited about what the school could mean to her children.

‘‘I’m happy because, now, there is an opportunity for my children to go to a good quality school,” Phiri said. “Teachers coming from outside Malawi will be able to help my children learn things like English and other skills quicker. If my children learn fast they can get good jobs, which will help our family lots in the future.”

Moses Mulungu, a local bricklayer and father, anticipates that his children will, one day, travel beyond Malawi thanks to Wasambo High School.

“They will only be able to do this by get-ting a good education and learning to read road signs and other important life skills,” Mulungu said.

While the parents are hopeful, the excitement of the students who may some day call Wasambo home builds with each passing day as the campus takes shape.

Since they broke ground in September 2016, much progress has been made on the physical facilities. The garage and storehouse are complete. The foundations for the head teacher’s house, boarding master’s house and volunteer teacher’s house are also complete. Maroon said building is expected to move quickly once the water system is in place. The water tower — which will hold four plastic 5,000-liter tanks for the gravity-fed water system — has been finished, as has the drilling for the three onsite wells.

Computer and multimedia labs will be among the facilities in the classroom blocks, and space has been reserved for a small outdoor amphitheater.

“My heart is pounding with excitement and nervousness,” said James Mayni, 14 (pictured left), who is looking forward to improving his English through the teaching of native English speakers. “I have always wanted to go to a boarding school, and this could be my dream come true. I will keep hoping that my next chapter of my life at Wasambo High School awaits.” 

Lowani Chirwa, 14, is also hopeful that he will be in the initial class of students admitted to Wasambo. His goal is to become one of the most educated people in his village and to fine-tune his English, as Wasambo will be an English-speaking campus.

“I believe that I will be able to learn higher reasoning skills, since the teachers will be highly educated,” Chirwa said. “I am looking forward to becoming a good, fluent English speaker.”

Exceeding expectations

Rick Pfleger, a 1977 UD graduate, has been on board since the beginning of Maroon’s development work in Malawi in 2008. He and his wife, Claire Tierney Pfleger ’78, met Maroon when he was a UD student living near their daughter, Lindsay Pfleger ’06.

“When Matt first decided he wanted to stay in Malawi, we wanted to help him financially,” Rick Pfleger said. “His goal was to start an orphanage for children who had lost their parents to AIDS. At the time, we thought if he got 10 to 15 orphans under roof, it would be a home run. He now has 45-plus orphans in dormitories, four nurseries and preschools, and serves more than 500,000 meals a year in the community.

“I never envisioned he would stay this long, much less have the incredible impact he has had in Chilumba. Matt has become a fixture in the community, even to the point where the village chiefs made him an honorary member of their group,” Pfleger said.

Maroon brings two or three young members of the community to Chicago annually to meet the Pflegers.

“From the very beginning, we have been amazed by the spirit and optimism of these children,” Pfleger said. “When they share their stories with us, it enthuses us even more to continue our annual support. They are incredibly sincere, hopeful and grateful.

“Determined to Develop is certainly one of the most encouraging and fulfilling projects we have ever been involved with. We could not be more proud of Matt and what he has accomplished in the Marianist spirit.”

The Pflegers’ contribution to UD’s experiential-learning mission in Malawi has helped make Wasambo a reality. The wider UD community has also contributed, including a $10,000 fundraising initiative in 2014 by the University of Dayton student chapter of Determined to Develop.

“The Pflegers’ faith in UD, Determined to Develop and the Sangilo Village is inspiring.” Pierce said. “I am profoundly grateful for their support of this project and for seeing early on the impact the partnership could have in the community and the life-altering experiential learning opportunities it provides our students.” Pierce added that fundraising continues for future experiential learning opportunities for UD students.

While Wasambo will be life changing for the young people who attend school there, the experience of working in Malawi has also been life changing for those who have shared their time and talents with the people of the region.

“One of the most meaningful things I have learned from my time in Malawi is that no matter who you are you can probably help someone, know someone that can help, or you have the resources to learn how,” said Rob Greene (pictured left in red T-shirt, with members of the planning and work crew, including Matt Maroon, far right), an ETHOS graduate student currently working on the Wasambo project. “Being in Malawi has also made me rethink relationships and truly value them. Of course making friends halfway around the world and then leaving is one difficult aspect, but you could sit down with someone and immediately know 100 ways that you are different, but all you need is one similarity, one point to connect. Surprisingly you’ll find that not only are you not that different, but you can probably help each other.”

Greene — who is working toward a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with a focus in environmental engineering — has been working as a project manager onsite and with Maroon on future construction plans.

“At times, it seems like ETHOS has only complicated my plans, but now I understand that I don’t only have an opportunity but also a degree of responsibility to act to better benefit my community and greater world community,” Greene said.

Department of Political Science Chair Grant Neeley has seen firsthand the impact the work in Malawi has had on the practicum students.

“It’s a tremendous learning experience and, in some cases, it most definitely shapes their career plans,” Neeley said. “But, regardless of their career path, this experience equips them with a greater understanding of how to work in a community setting. They gain a respect for others and their opinions and an ability to work through challenges, and that’s incredibly valuable because no matter where they go, they will be in a community.”

Even after years of UD student involvement in projects in Malawi, Pierce is impressed by the scope and impact of Wasambo High School.

“It’s a reflection of the commitment and passion of the community in Malawi, Matt, and UD,” he said. “It’s exciting to see our faculty and students engage in work that resonates so deeply with the Marianist mission.”

Pierce anticipates University of Dayton involvement with Wasambo and in Malawi well into the future.

That’s music to Maroon’s ears.

“The longer I am here in Africa, the more I realize that people have the same goals, no matter their culture or differences,” Maroon said. “We all want to push ourselves forward and we want to take care of our families. We all have the same motivations; to be happy, healthy, useful, fulfilled, valued and loved. This school will allow that impact to multiply the current work that we are doing. It will be a transformational force for families that will ripple from each person who passes through. We are transforming a society and are building another pathway to prosperity. How exciting is that?”

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

In 1998, the College of Arts and Sciences talked of sowing the seeds for human rights professionals who could collaboratively transform conversations and communities around the world. Today, those alumni serve in seven countries and numerous organizations dedicated to bettering the human condition. Here’s a look at where some alumni of the 2014 Malawi Research Practicum on Rights and Development, featured in the Winter 2014-15 UD Magazine, are today thanks to a UD education that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Alyssa Bovell ’14
Associate director of Project Partnerships IPM (International Partners in Mission)

“The interrelated challenges that impede the social, economic and political empowerment of women inspired me to pursue a human rights-based career in development. Women’s economic agency as a force of global poverty reduction has become an issue of international importance that I’ve become passionate about. [The practicum] has led to my current position at an international nonprofit that is focused on supporting women with equal access to resources and services to transform and sustain their communities.”

Jed Gerlach ’15
International programs assistant, Plan International USA

“It was great to be part of [Determined to Develop], a grassroots organization that was doing such great work with the resources given to them — an organization that not only helped people, but empowered them. To see that, as a student, had a great impact on me: on where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do.” 

Jason Hayes ’15
International program coordinator, Operation Smile

“You can study these things in a classroom and read every textbook out there but, at the end of the day, it’s just not the same. It doesn’t have an emotional effect until you get there and you see, firsthand, what the realities are. It was huge for me. I would highly recommend fieldwork. It affirmed for me the work I wanted to do.”

Andrew Lightner ’16
London School of Economics

“[The Malawi practicum] introduced me to wonderful people, fascinating research and exciting future opportunities. I have difficulty describing its impact, as I cannot recognize my worldview, experience at UD or current career trajectory without the practicum. I am currently studying international development and economics and aim to continue research in international and economic issues. The values and relationships Determined to Develop helped me form will continue to drive my career and non-career decisions.”

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