Called to Serve
Honors College student Micaela Esch is connecting America and Africa through education.
by Rachel Pierce
Three years ago human sciences senior Micaela Esch was called to serve. Her desire to help those less fortunate set her on a course to improve the educational outlooks and experiences of children in Africa. Along the way, she also intends to open doors to academic and service opportunities for college students in the U.S.
Esch traveled to Rwanda during the summer of 2009 as part of a mission trip with her church. In addition to seeing families living in miserable conditions, Esch noticed that children had very little opportunity to pursue an education, which might otherwise help to elevate them out of poverty.
“I just wasn’t expecting to see how many kids, wanting to go to school, get shooed away from the fences,” Esch said. “The government will say that school is free, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s free–they still have fees and uniforms and things that they have to pay for, and a lot of them cannot even pay the minimum. It really broke my heart.”
Esch left Africa at the close of the mission trip, though the experiences of that journey stayed with her. Back in the U.S., she found that some of her peers were also interested in traveling to Africa, and she felt that many others might be inclined to make the trip abroad and work or volunteer if there were a way to earn college credit, as well. The possibilities piqued Esch’s interest, and she intended to follow through on them.
A student of the Honors College, Esch decided to investigate international educational partnerships and was admitted to the Undergraduate Research Fellow program. Her mentor was Jerry Dwyer, associate professor of mathematics, who has led efforts to improve mathematical education at schools in Kenya. With Dwyer, Esch developed a dual-needs analysis of educational collaborations between the U.S. and Africa.
“I used to say that I was curbing her enthusiasm–she brought an immediate level of excitement to these projects, and I was highly impressed with her work,” Dwyer said of Esch. “We had a shared vision that things could be better in Africa, and people here can help make them better. Students, by going over there, can make a difference, and going over there can help students here in their outlook on life and the developing world.”
Dwyer provided moral support and helped when necessary to guide Esch’s research focus. “Rather than asking faculty ‘would they like to go to Africa’ or something, how do they look at the broader context of things–like study abroad programs, research experiences, scholarships, exchanges, Fulbrights–to understand how faculty view international collaborations,” Dwyer said.
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Lira Integrated School, Uganda
Micaela Esch is committing herself to improve the educational opportunities of children in Africa through her nonprofit, Students FOR Students. To fund the work undertaken by her organization, Esch has composed, performed and recorded the song “Pocket Change,” which is available for download from iTunes.
Building A Network
As a mentor, Dwyer also extended introductions between his contacts at schools in Africa and Esch. Yet he noted that Esch was such a high achiever, she had already made several associations in Africa by the time they began working together in the fellowship program. One such connection was with Beatrice Ayuru, a headmistress at the Lira Integrated School in Uganda and winner of the EMPRETEC Women in Business Award from the United Nations Development Programme. Esch met Ayuru when she visited Texas Tech to speak about education and entrepreneurship, and their association brought Esch back to Africa last year. This time Ayuru named Esch as the school’s headmistress for one month, giving her the chance to make lasting changes for the students.
“When I was at Lira Integrated in Uganda, Beatrice gave me the opportunity to see her school from the inside-out,” Esch said. “I ran staff meetings. I worked with the kids. I helped them with their discipline policy because in Uganda it’s still accepted to cane the kids when they’re not following directions. I really emphasized that caning the kids is not the answer, and I implemented new disciplinary policies. The school has kept them, and that’s exciting to see.”
Encouraged by her accomplishments since her first journey to Africa, Esch founded the nonprofit Students FOR Students to foster further connections between American universities and African primary and secondary schools. She is working to develop an exchange program that places students from Texas Tech and other U.S. universities with schools in Africa. The program would give college students the chance to study abroad and work with students in high-needs schools. Not only would such an opportunity raise the quality of education in African schools, Esch said, U.S. students would get to live and work in an international setting, making them more competitive candidates in the global job market.
The Journey Ahead
As for her own professional plans, Esch will earn a bachelor’s degree in December, and on Christmas Day she will return to Uganda for a five-month stint at Lira Integrated. She will focus on making improvements at Lira Integrated that will make it a model school that can be promoted by Students FOR Students.
“I’m going to try to create some after-school programs that will encourage kids to get involved in school and to really take it seriously,” Esch said. “I think increasing numbers within those programs will be a benchmark in gauging my success. I would love to find a few students who are really passionate about getting a college education and then going back and improving their communities in Uganda and Rwanda.”
And though her undergraduate fellowship has concluded, Esch continues to collaborate with professor Dwyer. They are exploring study abroad opportunities for Texas Tech students and are working with the Office of International Affairs to determine how Texas Tech’s colleges might extend their academic reach to Africa. Her efforts have been hard-earned, and Esch has admitted that she has endured setbacks and faced adversity while working to advance the mission of Students FOR Students. Still, she remains dedicated to the cause of supporting educational outreach in Africa and remembers how she was called to serve years ago.
Rachel Pierce is Senior Editor of Research and Academic Communications for the Office of the Provost at Texas Tech University. Photos courtesy Micaela Esch.