“It’s difficult to have high expectations when you grow up in Somaliland,” —DEQA ABDIRAHMAN ADEN ’14
By Cheryl Bardoe
This fall, Deqa Abdirahman Aden ’14 honed her list of possible colleges and reflected on the dream she once thought impossible. “It’s difficult to have high expectations when you grow up in Somaliland,” she says of her home, an autonomous breakaway region in northern Somalia. “When I came here to Worcester Academy … that is when I started having hopes for my life.”
Deqa enrolled at WA during her junior year, her studies here made possible by a $50,000 annual gift from Lori and Harry Emmons ’60, specifically to bring students to the academy from Africa. More recently, the generosity and intention of the Emmonses was formalized as an Endowed Scholarship through a $1 million gift to the academy’s ongoing capital campaign. Deqa’s success underscores the investment of WA alumni and highlights how the concept of global impact is interwoven into the academy’s past, present, and future.
SCHOOLED in SOMALILAND
Somalia is struggling to recover from two decades of civil war, overlapped with recurring drought. Trauma from the war affected Deqa’s father so much that he could not care for his family, leaving her mother with sole responsibility for three children. Surrounded by ongoing conflict and struggling to survive, Deqa’s mother still made sure that her children attended the best public schools in the city of Hargeysa.
From first through eighth grades, Deqa sat in classes of 60 students, with boys on one side of the room and girls on the other. Teachers had little time for class discussion, and particularly did not appreciate questions from girls, whom no one expected to attend school beyond eighth grade. Nonetheless, Deqa soaked up all the knowledge she could. “If education was like food in a bowl,” she says, “then my siblings and I ate the most.”
At the end of eighth grade, Deqa took the exam that all Somaliland students take at that age level. “I thought my hard work would be recognized,” she says, “but a lot of people cheated. If your father is famous, or if you are from a particular clan, then you will get a good score.”
While Deqa despaired, her mother encouraged her to take one more test. This time, Deqa’s efforts were rewarded as she earned the highest score of any girl in the country. She was accepted to the Abaarso School of Science and Technology, “Abaarso Tech,” a boarding school with a unique mission.
NEW SCHOOL brings NEW OPPORTUNITIES
Founding Abaarso Tech was not on Jonathan Starr’s radar when he graduated from WA in ’94. After college Mr. Starr began his career with a meteoric rise in the financial world. By age 27, he had founded Flagg Street Capital, a private investment firm with more than $100 million in assets. By age 30, he was becoming burned out. “I was up at 3 a.m.,” he says, “wondering what would happen in markets on the other side of the world, or if my predictions on the telecommunications industry would be accurate. I wanted to think about something else.”
In 2008, Mr. Starr traveled to Somalia with an uncle who had grown up there. He was impressed both by the depth of devastation that had occurred and by people’s enduring efforts to rebuild. The country’s education system symbolizes its struggles: The United Nations estimates that four out of ten children in Somalia attend school. Within a year, Mr. Starr had closed his investment firm in Cambridge, MA, and opened a boarding school in the desert 17 miles west of Hargeysa. “I thought that I may never again in my life see an opportunity to contribute in such a significant way,” he says.
About two dozen teachers staff Abaarso Tech, teaching an English-based curriculum to 165 students. Only the best students from throughout Somalia are invited to attend, yet most arrive as ninth graders with what elsewhere in the world would be considered a first-grade reading level. “Our students gain three reading levels each year,” Mr. Starr explains, “so that by graduation they are prepared to seek world- class educational opportunities.”
Building and operating the school have not been easy. Abaarso Tech has strong support from government and religious leaders, who have inspected and approved it for adhering stringently to local cultural customs. Yet it has also received threats, and the campus is surrounded by a nine-foot security fence and armed guards.
An equivalent obstacle is getting the rest of the world to take a chance on Abaarso Tech students. Most schools abroad don’t expect Somali students to have the academic foundation to succeed at their institutions. Mr. Starr, however, is just as obsessive about this work as he once was in the financial industry. “I’m still awake at 3 a.m.,” he says, “but now I’m thinking about how we will position kids to get into college.”
Mr. Starr credits WA with making the breakthrough for his students.
THE ROAD to WORCESTER ACADEMY
A previous recipient of the Emmonses’ generosity, Mubarik Mohamed Mohamoud ’13 arrived at WA in 2011, first for the summer program and then for the full academic year. Mr. Starr believes that Mubarik was the first student from Somalia to be accepted into any U.S. boarding school in decades.
Mubarik grew up in the impoverished Somali region of Ethiopia. The vast majority of people in this state are ethnic Somalis, including many nomads and about 200,000 refugees who live in United Nations camps. Mubarik’s family lived in a remote area with no schools; at around age 10, he ran away to seek an education. His family brought him home several times, but Mubarik was persistent. He lived on the streets of Hargeysa, attending school and eventually securing a place at Abaarso Tech through the entry exam. When Mubarik won the first opportunity for an Abaarso Tech student to study abroad, his friends hoisted him on their shoulders to celebrate.
“Being accepted at Worcester Academy changed my life,” Mubarik says. “I did not know if I would succeed at a big school in America, and other schools did not want to take kids from Somalia. Worcester Academy accepted me, and I did succeed.”
Today, Mubarik is a freshman at MIT, considering a degree in either electrical engineering or computer science. “When I graduate, my goal is to go back and do what I can to create a better environment in my home.” Mubarik understands, however, that he is already improving opportunities for young Somalis. “It is important that we can be accepted at schools in the U.S.,” he says. “This tells the world that our students can do well too.”
Since Mubarik’s achievement at WA, 19 other Abaarso Tech students have been accepted to study at other boarding schools and prestigious colleges such as Oberlin, Trinity College, and Georgetown University. Mr. Starr estimates that his students have secured more than $3 million in scholarships to further their educations abroad.
THINKING GLOBALLY BEGINS at HOME
Assistant Head of School/Director of Upper School Barbara Ahalt says that WA was confident in accepting Mubarik, and later Deqa, because Mr. Starr was an alumnus who knew firsthand about the academy’s academic rigor. “We trusted Jonathan to send us students with the tools to be successful,” she says. “He is passionate about what he’s doing, and we understand what he is trying to do.
“It’s important to expose students to what the world looks and feels like,” Ms. Ahalt continues. “We’re fortunate to be a boarding school where we can support hosting students from around the world.”
WA currently has students from 29 different countries. Ms. Ahalt describes classes in which students from Africa, New Zealand, Western Europe, Kazakhstan, and Mainland China exchange ideas alongside students from the United States. “It’s a remarkable achievement to break down cultural barriers and think about the world from a global perspective. This connects kids in a real, personal way.”
Even with the Abaarso Tech training, adjusting to WA can be a challenge. Enrolled in classes such as AP Chemistry and AP Calculus, Deqa recalls struggling for her first trimester, but then earning all A’s in her second trimester. The warmth of the community, she says, makes WA a welcoming environment to try new things, like choir and public speaking. In fact, she recently won the Dexter Prize Speaking Contest for a speech about humanity and what things drive people apart from each other. “I was speaking to the audience here,” Deqa says, “and I was thinking about my fellow Somalis at home.”
Scheduled to graduate from WA in 2014, Deqa no longer has low expectations for her life. “Here, they don’t care about your clan or your background. They care about what you can do. I feel like I can do anything.”
Source: Worcester Academy Digital