Monday November 27, 2017

Witnessing Malawi Work Firsthand

University of Dayton alumnus Jim O’Brien '78 took a personal approach to supporting students' work in Malawi, Africa. In late June, he traveled with a faculty delegation on a nine-day trip to the southeastern African nation, where both the University and the Marianists have been active community builders.

In Malawi, O’Brien watched construction of the new Wasambo High School that opened in September in Sangilo Village, with workers making bricks and mixing cement by hand. He also saw University of Dayton students working with Malawian university students to research important local issues such as deforestation, women’s empowerment and the interactions among nongovernmental organizations working in the area.

The inspiration for O'Brien's trip was a student presentation to the College of Arts and Sciences advisory council about the Human Rights Center’s Malawi Research Practicum on Rights and Development. Even with 20 hours of flying and six hours of driving, O'Brien said the trip was worth every minute.

“The thing that impressed me was the UD students were very involved with the local community people,” said O’Brien, who gave a presentation about his trip at the advisory council’s annual fall meeting. “They were each connected with a student from the University of Livingstonia, which is about 30 miles away. They were working hand-in-glove with those people, which made the experience so much better.”

O’Brien, who holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Dayton and a master’s of business administration from the University of Chicago, retired in 2015 as chief operating officer of Cantillon Capital Management. In 2013, he joined the 16-member advisory council, which assists College Dean Jason Pierce and other administrators in continuously improving the quality of the College’s educational programs and the value they create for constituents.

Pierce led the Malawi delegation, which also included Connie Bowman, department of teacher education chair, and Novea McIntosh, co-director of the University’s Urban Teacher Academy.

Malawi, a landlocked country about the size of Pennsylvania, is one of the world’s least-developed countries, with about 80 percent of its population employed in agriculture. Nearly 47 percent of its population is younger than 14, and more than 16 percent of all children are orphans and vulnerable children.

Nearly 1 million orphans and vulnerable children have lost one or both parents to AIDS. According to UNICEF, 20 percent of Malawian households are looking after orphans and vulnerable children, and many of these households are headed by girls, women and elderly women.

“The country was dramatically impacted by AIDS, so there’s almost a missing generation of mostly men,” O’Brien said. “There are many women who are responsible for themselves, their children and their brothers’ and sisters’ children at the same time.”

The University has a number of Malawi initiatives in partnership with Determined to Develop, a Karonga-based nongovernmental organization founded by University alumnus Matt Maroon ’06. Since 2011, the School of Engineering’s ETHOS program has worked with Malawians on projects such as potable water and the Wasambo High School construction. The Malawi Research Practicum on Rights and Development launched in 2013.

This year, Bowman and McIntosh visited numerous schools in Malawi and worked with Wasambo High School teachers on professional and curriculum development. University of Dayton teacher education students will continue that work there starting next summer.

Bowman said her greatest experience was meeting and speaking with Malawian students. At one rural school, she noticed that a student had written the name of the Columbus, Ohio, rap-rock band Twenty One Pilots on the blackboard.

“I had the opportunity to let the students know that the group was from Ohio and that is where the University of Dayton is located, and how surprised I was to see that they knew this group,” Bowman said. “It was interesting relating UD and Dayton to this band.”

In September, nearly 80 students started classes at Wasambo High School. The first phase is a boarding school that serves boys from up to several hundred miles away. The long-term plan also includes a girl’s high school and a technical college.

Malawi citizens have a legal right to primary education, but secondary education isn’t guaranteed. Only about 18 percent of students who complete eighth grade attend high school, largely because of limited capacity at existing schools.

“There is significant need in Malawi for additional secondary schools, particularly schools like Wasambo that blend the traditional curriculum with leadership and social justice instruction,” Pierce said. “From my perspective, the construction and launch of Wasambo is a great example of students from across the University coming together to help advance the common good. It’s transforming a community in Malawi, as well as the perspectives and aspirations of our students who spend time in and learning from that community.”

O’Brien also sees the value in continuing to send University students to Malawi to work with Maroon and Determined to Develop.

“I was just happy to see what Matt has built and to talk about building leaders that come from someplace like UD to create this environment there,” O’Brien said. “It is really incredible what he has done.”

- Dave Larsen, communication coordinator, College of Arts and Sciences

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