July 1, 2011

Reflections of a Volunteer Alumni: How AGYA Shaped & Prepared Me For My Job With Teach For America

By: Marianna Singwi-Ferrono

During the summer of 2009, I spent a month living, teaching, and volunteering at AGYA along with seven other students from the University of Southern California.  Founded by Nicolette Omoile in 2008-9, Rise of African Youth through Self-Empowerment (RAYSE) is the first USC recognized student-organization to send students to Africa. RAYSE is dedicated to educating, empowering, and enriching the lives of the women and youth in Uganda and eventually all of Africa. We envision RAYSE to be the umbrella organization of numerous student organizations interested in raising awareness about the African continent. In order to realize our vision, RAYSE volunteers with AGYA during our annual service-learning “Alternative Summer Break: Uganda” (ASB) student trip. During the first trip in 2009, RAYSE collectively taught computer literacy, world cultures, music/songwriting, film production, theater games, art and dance, volunteered at  Nabulagala Good Hope Primary School and learned basic Luganda.  

Now in 2011, eight USC students are preparing to leave for the 3rd annual RAYSE “Alternative Summer Break: Uganda”.  These creative young leaders will be teaching classes such as story-telling, film  and music production, entrepreneurship and dance.  This year, RAYSE was also invited to the Clinton Global Initiative University leadership conference and we will be spearheading a sustainable sex-education and health program at AGYA.  RAYSE has grown immensely alongside AGYA since Nicolette, RAYSE’s founder, and Divinity, AGYA’s co-founder, tossed around ideas about developing the first USC trip to Africa. RAYSE has now sent about twenty-five students to volunteer with AGYA and all eight 2010 participants became active, passionate members of RAYSE’s Executive board upon their return from their inspiring trip to Uganda.  As RAYSE’s current President, previous 2010 Co-President and 2009 Fundraising director, I am proud of the progress this pioneering student organization has made.

My first day in Uganda, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the heaps of burning trash, shoeless children and houses patched together by dilapidated wooden boards, trying to wrap my head around the immense poverty and lack of opportunity that surrounded me. After only spending one day at AGYA, however, my sorrow and frustration with a world that neglects our African youth was coupled with my experiential knowledge that things can be different.  The sound of beating drums and voices singing “Ya weh, ooh, ya weh”, giggling children chatting in Luganda, the smell of beans and vegetables cooking, and the sight of creativity, leadership and learning in action gave me a renewed sense of joy, passion and hope.  

The first RAYSE trip in 2009 was an adventure with an innumerable amount of truly transformative experiences.  I roomed with a member of RAYSE, Emily, and two AGYA youth leaders, Happy and Sarah, learned their inspiring stories and formed invaluable friendships with all three of these young women.  Teaching the World Cultures class with Nicolette, we developed a mutual-connection with our Ugandan students bridging separate languages, histories, and cultures and learned about Uganda in their final project.  

Above: Marianna and the USC volunteers at AGYA - June 2009

I admired Nelson, an AGYA youth leader, as he relentlessly pursued film editing into the wee hours of the night with his RAYSE cinema teacher Christina.  We cheered on Kenny as he and USC volunteer Chris designed his poster for the school Head Boy election.  RAYSE learned Luganda, AGYA moved into a larger facility, and Good Hope Elementary adopted a permanent Arts Program into their curriculum.  All of these experiences were not only empowering for the youth of AGYA but were also empowering for me. These moments empowered me to find my role as a leader of RAYSE and thus to be a part of the solution to the large-scale poverty and lack of opportunity that once overwhelmed me. I no longer felt helpless.  Education and communities like AGYA are a real solution.

The lessons of embracing diversity and equality that are reinforced by AGYA’s learning environment will be invaluable to me as a teacher.  This fall, I will begin teaching in a bilingual Spanish-English classroom in a low-income community of San Francisco as a Teach For America corps member.  AGYA fosters a safe community of acceptance for students’ native cultures and encourages them to speak in their native languages. At AGYA, all international volunteers learn basic Luganda and participate in cultural excursions; Ugandans and Americans, adults and children alike are both teachers and learners. In contrast, students in the local elementary schools near AGYA are often publically shamed or victims of corporal punishment for speaking in their native-language instead of English.  Outside of AGYA, our Ugandan students often asked us questions such as, “does white skin feel pain?”. These examples are latent with oppressive messages of White/Western superiority, a cycle I hope to end in my own classroom.  Though students in the United States are not physically punished in school for speaking a language other than English, children who are immigrants or English Language Learners are similarly marginalized and their cultures and languages are often rejected in school.

As a bilingual teacher, I will emulate AGYA’s safe learning environment for all of my students by incorporating their language, histories and cultures into their education.  Whether from the villages of Uganda or the Latino communities of the Bay, our world’s youth have enormous potential.  The youth leaders of AGYA are not simply arbitrary success stories of youth that have overcome enormous adversity, but rather a testament to the potential all youth can reach if they are given the opportunities and support, most importantly, an education.  Thanks to my experience at AGYA, I know that I too can create an inclusive learning environment for my future students.