Don’t Set Sail Using Somebody Else’s Star

It’s often said that an education is an investment in yourself. Education not only empowers people to enhance their lives, it can also create an entire intellectual eco-system that serves and provides hope for the community. The School of St Jude in Tanzania is an example of an educational centre that not only creates opportunities for the future of its students, but also enacts positive change for future generations to come.

The benefits of education are known throughout the world, but the lack of educational opportunities is felt in many nations. One example is Tanzania.

Tanzania is a beautiful East African country that offers stunning scenery and wildlife, attracting millions of tourists per year to climb Mt Kilaminjaro, or go on Safari. Behind the tourist strip and the sun-kissed savannah, the reality is that Tanzania is dealing with a large population with many living in abject poverty. The government school system is overstretched, and there simply isn’t the funding available to extend it to fit the needs of the population. Breaking the cycle of poverty is nearly impossible for poorer communities, some of which survive on less than $1.25 a day for the entire family.

Gemma Sisia and The School of St Jude

At a recent presentation held at NDY’s Melbourne office, Gemma Sisia talked about the history and ongoing mission of The School of St Jude – the school she founded with little more than her own desire to help others, and a lot of willpower.

As a 22 year-old, Gemma travelled to Uganda to volunteer as a teacher. She was exposed to the shortfall of the local education system, where the students were passionate and enthusiastic about learning, but didn’t have the resources or opportunities to pursue a quality education. As a result, they had little opportunity to break the cycle of poverty.

“After finishing University, I volunteered in East Africa as a Maths/Science teacher,” Gemma says. “I loved it, but, being under 25, I thought I knew everything. I thought that education should be free to everyone – especially underprivileged people. I had this idea of building a free private school. I had no idea what I was in for”.

After returning home to Australia, Gemma set about on making a plan to provide high-quality education to the poorest people of the region, and that it would be provided for free. Gemma was frequently told it was a hopeless cause, and so it was fitting that she chose to name the school after St Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes.

Gemma set about fundraising for the project, and along with a generous donation of a small plot of land in Arusha, Tanzania, Gemma literally laid the foundations to build the first classroom of The School of St Jude. With the help of friends, family, schools and Rotary groups, Gemma was able to open the School in 2002.

The school services only the poorest of the poor in the country. Admission involves a rigourous testing period, which considers the disadvantaged status of the family as well as the academic results.

“We are looking to help those in the most need. These families live in shacks with dirt floors, but understand that education will open opportunities to improve their situation,” says Gemma.

Only one member per family can be admitted. Despite coming from disadvantaged families, the students have such enthusiasm and motivation that they often surpass students in government schools, with many students of St Jude’s currently sitting in the top 1% of all secondary schools in the country.

Reaching for the sky

Gemma periodically returns to Australia to drive fundraising for the school. Despite the success of the institution, it still depends on the generosity of many Australian and International donors. On the latest of these fundraising tours, Gemma brought tangible evidence of the benefits this school provides, one of her students; Winrose.

Winrose is a young woman who speaks passionately about her situation. As the child of parents who understood the value of education, but could not afford to send them to school, Winrose seized the opportunity to attend St Jude’s wholeheartedly.

“When I was in a government school, it was difficult. My mother was a cleaner, and taught me to sew, so after school, I’d go to teachers and older students and ask to sew clothes for them in return for their materials, notes or text books,” says Winrose.

“This is quite common in our students,” says Gemma. “We look at the academic results from government schools, because children who do well there are usually self taught. Many of these classes don’t have teachers, so students do what they can to learn for themselves. Some will sew, like Winrose, some offer to help with farming in return for notes, so when we give them the attention that they need, they flourish.”

Winrose did this at six years old. At a time when most children are learning to tie shoelaces and sending their first Christmas list to Santa, this young girl was using the sewing skills her mother taught her to pursue a better future for herself and her family with a tenacity that is as admirable as it is saddening.

When Winrose showed promise at her government school, she was encouraged to apply for The School of St Jude. This involved a highly competitive entrance exam, along with a home visit to check on her level of disadvantage. With only 40 places accepted out of 1,000 applications, Winrose worked hard to pass the entrance exam, and was relieved when she was told she was accepted.

“My Mother made me understand the benefits of education, so I studied really hard. I wanted to have a better life for myself and my family,” says Winrose.

Her mother passed away when she was only ten. With the household responsibilities and raising her siblings falling upon her young shoulders, using the enchanting African sky as inspiration, Winrose continued to dream of a career in Aeronautical engineering.

“I saw the difference between people who are educated and those who are not – I wanted a better life, I didn’t want to suffer and in future, a better life for my kids.”

“I would see planes flying in the sky and always wanted to be involved in that – that is why I wanted to become an aeronautical engineer,” she said.

St Jude’s doesn’t stop supporting students when they leave the school. As students move on to tertiary education, donations to St Jude’s help these students with tuition and expenses, helping them pursue in-demand vocations, such as becoming Doctors or Teachers. Winrose’s goal of becoming an Aeronautical Engineer is now achievable, thanks to St Jude’s.

“I’ve loved planes since I was young. I use to see planes fly in the sky. It was everyone’s dream to fly in a plane when I was young, and on this trip, I took my first flight in a plane. No university in Tanzania offers this course, so now I’m pursuing it in the USA. There are very few engineers in Tanzania, and I thought ‘why not me?’”

“I enjoyed the flight, but I wanted to be in the cockpit”.

With Winrose’s drive and work ethic, and her ability to overcome the obstacles in her way, it seems there are few challenges that she is not empowered to face.

Empowering the educators

Tanzania has a shortage of capable teachers, with many classes in government schools often without a teacher to lead the lessons. Initially, St Jude’s made use of many international volunteers to teach the classes, but as the reputation for excellence has spread, they’ve attracted talented local education professionals to run the school.

“I’ve stepped back quite a bit from the day-to-day running of the school. I might go to an occasional assembly, but it’s the Headmasters that run the school, and I try to empower them to do that,” says Gemma.

“When we started, it was mostly Western volunteers, now it’s almost all locals across every department.”

This focus on providing local educators enhances the employment opportunities for them also, magnifying the impact that St Jude’s has on the region. Teachers are supported and provided with the required materials that they would often lack in government schools. The classes – full of students committed to their education – also helps the teachers create a learning environment that supports and inspires the education staff as well.

Fighting Poverty Through Education

In 2016, the NDY Charitable Trust committed to provide scholarships for two students at the School of St Jude.

The two students, Serafina and Joseph recently graduated from Form 6 and completed one year of community service through the Beyond St Jude’s program. Both students have received sponsorship by the charity to attend The University of Dar es Salaam to follow their dreams. Serafina has chosen a BA of Natural Science in Agriculture, Natural Resources, Economic & Business, while Joseph is well on his way studying a BA of Science specialising in Chemical and Process Engineering. They are both already providing tangible benefits to their communities by becoming inspiring examples of what can be achieved with a quality education, and the will to make it happen. Last year, Joseph managed to save some of his modest Community Service Year stipend to repair/rebuild his mother’s very modest dwelling and buy secondary school books and a uniform for his young brother, helping his family improve their situation, as well as open up greater opportunities for himself and his brother.

In a personal letter to NDY, Joseph describes his wonderful life experiences and expressed his gratitude and appreciation. Serafina penned her heartfelt appreciation too, promising to continue working hard, chasing her inspirational dreams. Both of these students are now in a position to create positive change in their communities, and even the nation, all thanks to a single woman with a dream, a lot of courage, and the generosity of people around the world.

There’s an inspirational saying in Tanzania ‘Don’t set sail using somebody else’s star’. St Jude’s is helping thousands of the most underpriveliged students find their own stars, and set sail for a future that will benefit themselves, their families, and ultimately, the whole country. St Jude’s is bringing those stars within reach.

How the NDY Charitable Trust makes dreams a reality

NDY has a strong history of contributing to the community, with The School of St Jude one of its current projects. NDY’s commitment to charitable causes inspired the establishment of the NDY Charitable Trust in 2011 which looks to provide support to communities in need.

The NDY Trust aims to make a difference to those communities in need through the combined efforts of its people, and the financial support from NDY staff and management. Charitable efforts are provided through a combination of pro-bono and in-kind engineering services, and NDY staff are actively encouraged to support the work of the Trust though practical assistance.

Since its inception, the NDY Charitable Trust has donated over $300,000 to charitable causes – an achievement that makes every NDY team member enormously proud.

If you’d like to contribute to St Jude’s, please visit www.schoolofstjude.org/support-us/donate.html

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