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Olga Valdman with students Thomas Jackson (far left) and Clarence Zeh (right) and ACE volunteer Francis Jeppoe. With help from ACE, Jackson and Zeh will be graduating from high school in 2009.
A good education is the foundation for success for any individual in America. For those who are refugees escaping the consistent trauma of life in areas of conflict around the globe, the bright future that an education promises is particularly precious. In Worcester, young members of the growing African immigrant community have found the potential for a productive life through African Community Education (ACE), a non-profit organization co-founded by UMass Medical School student Olga Valdman. With Catholic Charities refugee resettlement case worker Kaska Yawe, a Liberian immigrant who is now an American citizen, Valdman has created an educational enrichment program rooted in the community to ensure its sustainability.
ACE is a by-product of Valdman’s first-year Community Health Clerkship, an integral, public-service oriented component of the UMMS undergraduate medical curriculum. While the initial objective of her clerkship was to assist one or two African families with their health needs, Valdman’s focus soon shifted to educational needs. She learned that many children who have lived through distress and displacement in impoverished and war-torn countries like Liberia, Sudan, Somalia and Burundi find themselves floundering academically once they arrive in Worcester because they are placed in grades according to their age, rather than their English-speaking abilities or previous schooling.
“When they first arrive, these kids want to learn, but being so behind in school is very discouraging,” explained Valdman. “Education is integrally linked to health status—without proper support, some students drop out of high school and some engage in risky behaviors—teen pregnancy, for example, is on the rise in this vulnerable population.”
Run entirely by volunteers from the African community and local colleges and universities, including UMMS, ACE is centered on a Saturday program offering math and English classes and homework help, as well as theater and dance classes. “The program has evolved from tutoring in single subjects to a comprehensive, integrated educational program,” Valdman said. The Saturday program has grown from its first class of 25 to currently serve 70 children, with a growing waiting list. In the fall of 2008, the program celebrated it first participant to enter college. More are expected to follow thanks to improved school performance and MCAS scores.
Many of ACE’s young beneficiaries aspire to be just like Valdman and her fellow UMass Medical School volunteers. “More than anything, I would like to be a medical doctor,” wrote 15-year-old program participant Gertura Gbarbo. Thanks to the volunteers of ACE, her chances for making that dream come true are much better.
African Community Education
This information appears in the UMMS 2008 Annual Report. PDF available.