Katie Nelligan ’14 and Kyle Seelig ’15 stand with students from Heritage Academy, for whom they prepared lesson plans on innovative topics. Photo courtesy of Nelligan
Katie Nelligan ’14 and Kyle Seelig ’15 stand with students from Heritage
Academy, for whom they prepared lesson plans on innovative topics. Photo courtesy of Nelligan

By Arielle Lipset, Campus Life Editor ||

This past December, the Ware Institute for Civic Engagement offered a group of students the chance to embark on an alternative Winter break community-based learning trip to Ghana, West Africa. Nine students, supervised by Lilah Thompson ‘11, trip coordinator at the Heritage Academy, and Rachel Helwig, assistant dean for international and off-campus study, created lesson plans on various subjects used to teach students at Heritage Academy, a licensed K-12 educational institution in Ajumako, Ghana.

Heritage Academy was in the midst of celebrating its 10th anniversary when F&M students arrived. The Academy was founded in 2004 by Kwesi Koomson ’97, an alumnus of F&M, from the village of Essiam in Ghana, West Africa. Koomson has initiated more than 15 trips to the Heritage Academy since 2005 and aids students in preparing for their involvement and lesson plans.

On April 2, students who went to Ghana are sponsoring a screening of the documentary “Rise and Shine” in Adam’s Auditorium, which profiles a student at Heritage Academy and a student from Philadelphia, highlighting the universality of learning and the need for worldwide, quality education.

Koomson began the Academy in a small church with just 32 students for grades pre-kindergarten through ninth grade. Six years later, a secondary school was added for grades 10 through 12 and the student population reached 1,200 students. Students of the school boast a 100 percent passing rate for Ghana’s national exam, which is otherwise rather infrequent for schools in the village.

This national exam remains crucial in Ghanaian education, as children in Ghana must take an exam after completing eighth grade in order to continue onward with their education. However, the Heritage Academy attempts to teach students more than only the material that is tested on the national exam, and provide students with critical thinking strategies rather than pure memorization.

Katie Nelligan ’14 went to Heritage in January and said the trip has influenced her aspirations for a future career.

“It was really life-changing,” Nelligan said. “Now, as a senior, I’m looking at careers in non-profit and education, especially internationally. I realized the importance of education in smaller towns. It really put things in perspective for me… promoting education globally is so important; economies are better if young girls and young children are educated.”

When given the chance to teach students and design her lesson plan, Nelligan chose to teach her students about human rights and leadership.

“In the U.S., kids are much more aware of what’s going on globally, but I would ask these kids, ‘have you heard about the Civil Rights Movement?’ and they wouldn’t know what I was talking about,” Nelligan said.

Nelligan provided an explanation why children in Ghana lack knowledge of global issues and occurrences.

“Part of the problem with the education system in Ghana is that the children are taught what’s on the national exam and that’s it,” Nelligan said.“The history and material they take in usually doesn’t expand past Ghana or West Africa.”

Another participant, Carey Sentman ’14, paralleled Nelligan’s notions regarding Ghana’s lack of educational depth and the influence of gender on students’ learning.

“A lot of parents in Ghana think that if you’re going to send a child to school, you [should] send the boy rather than the girl, and instead of having to pay for a girl, she’d work in the house,” Sentman said. “Heritage offers scholarships that enable girls to get the education they deserve.”

Although Heritage Academy provides many students with scholarships and the motivation to continue their studies, Nelligan and Sentman both noted the small likelihood that students will accomplish their ambitious goals.

“The students have high hopes for what they want to do in America, but actually accomplishing these dreams poses a major issue, since it doesn’t happen often,” Nelligan said. “A lot of them want to be lawyers— to go to University— but it’s finding a scholarship that becomes difficult when they have such limited resources.”

The teachers at Heritage recognize the hardships the children will face and thus encourage their students to be more realistic.

“Many [of the teachers] try to push the students to think more about what they can do for their town and their country, and if they want an higher education they are encouraged to reach and strive for it,” Sentman said.

Carey Sentman ’14 traveled to the Heritage Academy in Ghana, where she and eight other students lived and taught children for 19 days. Photo courtesy of Kate Nelligan '14
Carey Sentman ’14 traveled to the Heritage Academy in Ghana, where
she and eight other students lived and taught children for 19 days. Photo courtesy of Kate Nelligan ’14

Nelligan and Sentman explained the language barrier made teaching more difficult. Students in Ghana are taught in English, but it is not their first or most-used language.

“I had no idea what to anticipate,” Nelligan said. “We prepared elaborate lesson plans, thinking that the children would quickly respond and learn, but we were then confronted with the reality that teaching these children wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be.”

Nelligan said that she and the other students quickly changed their lesson plans after the first day of classes.

“We saw that the students required a different approach to teaching,” Nelligan said.

Nelligan wanted to open students’ eyes to ideas of leadership, and asked them about which qualities they believe compose a leader.

“Many of the students quickly identified the image of a leader as the headmaster of Heritage, Mr. DeGraft, who is an inspiration,” Nelligan said. “We saw his commitment to every single student and passion for education in the time we spent at Heritage.”

Nelligan and Sentman each said they took away from the trip more than they possibly gave to Heritage students.

“The students are used to visiting teachers like us,” Sentman said. “But we learned from the children in Ghana, and from the overall experience, more than we could have taught them in the few days we were there.”

The group of students that went on the Winter break program formed a relationship with a young student at Heritage, who introduced them to a documentary he was featured in, entitled “Rise and Shine,” which was filmed by students from Villanova University.

“After watching the documentary, we were all equally moved by its contents and directly related to it,” Sentman said. “It contained people we had met and draws upon the Heritage school and its focus.”

After returning from Ghana, the F&M students planned to screen the documentary on campus and create an event surrounding their experience with education. The documentary displays the paths of a student at Heritage Academy and a student at Strawberry Mansion in Philadelphia. While the two students grow up and learn in two different worlds, their stories reflect surprising similarities.

The documentary will be screened April 2 in Adams Auditorium. Following the film, Professors Doug Anthony, Katherine McClelland, and Carla Willard will join Kwesi Koomson to discuss education relating to themes brought forth by the documentary.

Although the event is free, attending students are encouraged to make donations to the Heritage Academy.

“We hope that people will be influenced and intrigued by the documentary, just as we were in Ghana,” Nelligan said. “We want to bring our experience and the purpose of education to life.”

Junior Arielle Lipset is the Campus Life Editor. Her email is alipset@fandm.edu.