LIME student teaching Malagasy students.
Students from Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College are opening doors for high schoolers from Madagascar.
Situated in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Mozambique, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the country’s university system is a reflection of the dire economic situation
Many Malagasy students apply to universities in France, as Madagascar was a French colony at one time, and the language is common there. Lately, students have been seeking alternatives, explains Lafayette economics professor David Stifel.
In 2009, Stifel began conceptualizing the Lafayette Initiative for Malagasy Education (LIME). Around that time, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Madagascar, Niels Marquardt, realized how underrepresented undergraduate Malagasy students were here, and began alerting university officials to the problem.
A year later, Stifel took a group of students to Madagascar, and upon return, they created LIME, in which university students mentor Malagasy high schoolers by helping them apply to and prepare for American universities.
To apply for the student-run program, Lafayette students must be nominated by a faculty member and agree to the year-and-a-half commitment, including a three-week trip to Madagascar. Stifel tries to put together a team with diverse skills and backgrounds.
Once accepted, the LIME mentors assist Malagasy students by preparing them for the SAT and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), and editing college application essays.
The self-titled “shepherd” of the trip, Stifel says, “It’s not my program, it’s (theirs).
Not only do they develop lesson plans and lectures, the Lafayette students do the majority of the fundraising, which goes toward testing and application fees. For accepted students, that also pays for airfare, insurance and winter clothes. Combined, Stifel estimates this cost at nearly $5,000 per student.
Money is raised by selling “Live. Love. LIME” bracelets, appealing to local businesses for sponsorship and personal donations, explains recently graduated John Bolton, who went to Madagascar last year.
LIME mentors Carter Tindell-Hall and John Bolton with Malagasy students.
While in Madagascar, the Lafayette students stay in the capital city, Antananarivo, and work with a local high school, Lycée Andohalo. Juniors in the program are educated about applying to college, whereas seniors focus on honing their skills — and practicing their English.
Stifel, Bolton and Elizabeth Lucy, a junior who visited the country in January, agree that English language is the biggest barrier facing the Malagasy students, “but even within 10 days, it improved drastically,” Lucy says. For most, English is their third language.
The classroom culture is also different. In Madagascar, students are discouraged from asking questions.
“It was hard at first to know how smart (the Malagasy students) were,” says Emily Noel, who was in the first group of LIME mentors. By the second day, Noel says, it was clear they were “just as brilliant as us.”
In fact, one of the first Malagasy students who went through the program, Rebeka Ramangamihanta, joined her former mentors at Lafayette last fall.
She didn’t know what she was getting into when she showed up for one of the first sessions.
“They just told us that if we wanted to talk to Americans to practice our English we should go to our high school over Christmas break,” Ramangamihanta says.
While she knew she wanted to go somewhere other than France for college, she had no idea how to do it. LIME came along at the perfect time.
Planning to major in economics and international affairs, Ramangamihanta has adjusted well, though she admits she still struggles with English, and she advises Malagasy students to practice speaking as often as possible.
In January, the LIME students also visited an orphanage, a deeply emotional experience for Lucy, as she realized the children had so “little chance for mobilization in the future.”
But then, she had another thought.
“I know that my students want to improve their country, so those kids (in the orphanage) do have a chance,” Lucy says.
Eventually, Ramangamihanta wants to go back to Madagascar to open an orphanage of her own.
Once the LIME students return, they keep frequent communication with their students over e-mail, Facebook and Skype.
Stifel doesn’t have plans to expand the program, but he hopes LIME will serve as a model for other schools to develop similar programs. Currently, only one-third of students who have applied have been accepted with full funding.
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