Alum Gwen Smith Takes Her Teaching Profession to War-Ravaged Sierra Leone
By (August 2007)
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The conditions are crude and uninviting—widespread poverty, broken infrastructure, and schools and hospitals in shambles. Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest countries, still reeling six years after the end of a bitter 11-year civil war.
But the missionary work of a selfless Penn State College of Education alumna is helping the third-world West African nation rebound. Gwen Smith ’96 EK ED feels that one of the best ways to improve Sierra Leone’s future is to transform the country’s broken and struggling education system.
Smith is a coordinating supervisor for Transformation Education, working under the umbrella of the global relief organization World Hope International and in partnership with EduNations. “EduNations raises money and partners with local organizations for development of schools, assisting them to become self-sustaining,” says Smith.
Education is a low priority for many in the country. Coping with basic life issues takes precedence. The literacy rate for Sierra Leonians is only 36 percent. About half of the primary-age children are enrolled in school; fewer than half of those make it past fifth grade.
The schools are in extremely poor condition. There is very little money to support the classrooms. Teachers and students scrape up any resources they can—even paper, pens, and books are extremely precious commodities. Many of the teachers work without regular pay, or with minimal pay.
Smith’s current task, training the teachers in Sierra Leone, is enormous. She conducts workshops for Sierra Leone teachers, only 40 percent of whom are actually qualified to teach. “This is a challenging but worthy cause,” she says with optimism.
Since 2006, Smith has been directly involved with training more than 450 teachers. Most of her workshops have been held in two-day sessions, although she worked with 12 teachers on a daily basis for four months.
Smith’s workshops provide much-needed professional development to the schools’ teachers and administrators. “I try to apply my instruction based on (author) John Maxwell’s process of model, mentor, monitor, motivate, and multiply,” she said. As a missionary, she also lends a Christian element to her work.
At a recent workshop where she taught Methods of Teaching and Classroom Management, Smith was observed by the principal of one of Sierra Leone’s five teacher’s colleges and the director of higher education for the country’s Ministry of Education. “They both said that I am welcome for future training in the college and with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology,” said Smith. “They value the introduction of new methods of teaching. Every time we have done workshops, we have been invited to do more.”
Living and working in the capital city of Freetown, Smith shares a house with four other women who likewise are doing missionary work. She recently returned to Sierra Leone after spending about three years on several continents working with Mercy Ships, a humanitarian organization involved in child development.
Water and electricity utilities around Freetown, as in most areas of the country, are sporadic. Electricity is available an average of only ten hours a week. Roads are in poor condition—rocky, bumpy, and difficult to navigate. Many bridges are in ruins. “A trip that should take two hours ends up taking five hours,” Smith says.
Sierra Leone’s civil war erupted in 1991, when rebel combatants sought to take control of the nation’s lucrative diamond mines. In the process, they committed horrible atrocities, killing residents of entire villages. They enslaved women, left many people as amputees, and manipulated orphaned children, forcing them to take drugs and become child soldiers. Hunger spread, and the use of women in prostitution flourished.
Now, in the aftermath of the war, Sierra Leone’s living conditions are difficult. Family income is just $140 per year. The life expectancy is only 34 years.
Even while trying to sprout an improved attitude among the country’s educators, Smith has a positive outlook. “We’re thankful for office items,” she said. “The Transformation Education office is now better equipped than most offices in Sierra Leone. I have visited many offices of government officials, college professors, and principals of schools, and many of those offices lack even basic items such as a file cabinet and stapler. Many others don’t have computers or printers because they have no electricity.”
Overcoming the tribulations of poverty takes an aggressive mindset. “My goal includes two steps,” says Smith. “First is to help people understand that each person is valuable and has contributions to make to society. The second step is to aid in development of character, instilling and forming of values that permit a better vision of the future.”
Sierra Leone is a long way from Smith’s hometown of Meadville, Pa., both in distance and in lifestyle. But she is willing to sacrifice the familiar comforts of home. “I’ve dreamed of mission work ever since I was five years old,” she says. “I have just one life to live and I want to make a difference.” She plans to serve the education sector of Sierra Leone at least through 2011.To get an in-depth look at Smith’s activities, visit her blog site at http://gwenjoy.blogspot.com/
The Penn State College of Education serves approximately 2,800 undergraduate and 1,200 graduate students each year. The College prepares administrators, counselors, psychologists and researchers, as well as K-12 teachers in 21 different specialty areas. All of the College of Education graduate programs, that are ranked by the U.S. News & World Report, appear at least in the top 15, with six programs in the top ten.The College's Higher Education Administration program is ranked 1st and the Workforce Education and Development program is ranked 2nd. The College is known nationally for its education research and outreach, housing such centers as the Center for the Study of Higher Education, the Center for Science and the Schools, the Mid-Atlantic Center for Mathematics Teaching and Learning, and the Regional Education Laboratory--Mid-Atlantic.