Megan Jones ’10 (Bridgewater, N.J.), a double major in policy studies and French, traveled to Madagascar in January with a group of nine other students to create and implement a mentoring program to facilitate Malagasy students’ admission to United States institutions of higher education. The Lafayette Initiative for Malagasy Education (LIME) pilot program is guided by David Stifel, assistant professor of economics.
My work in Madagascar altered my perception of the world. The students whom I was supposed to teach about the United States’ educational system changed the fundamentals of how I think about the human condition. The contrast between our two worlds was very evident, as was our common humanity.
The same university students who were well-versed in American pop culture also demonstrated the gap between our cultures when they discussed their favorite custom with me, exhumation. During this special feast, which takes place on the first anniversary of the death of a loved one, each living member of the family dances with the bones of the deceased in a bag placed on their heads, and a large celebration is held in honor of the dead.
We Americans can also learn from Madagascar’s appreciation of diversity and multiple standards of beauty. On every billboard advertising Malagasy products, there is a beautiful model, but the skin color, facial features, and shape are likely to vary quite a bit from one advertisement to the next.
In the United States, there is emphasis on technology in the classroom at all levels of education. When visiting the best high schools in Madagascar, the facilities and technology were in worse condition than those in the poorest inner city school district of the United States. Though despite this, I saw that dedication on the part of students and teachers alike makes learning possible in any conditions.
Coming home, I had a better understanding of why the Malagasy students want to come here to learn. Beyond socioeconomic mobility, American education offers the opportunity to learn how to assimilate, process, and utilize knowledge. Though the French system of education and its Malagasy adaptation certainly have their own advantages, an American bachelor’s degree can allow individuals to utilize the best of each system in addressing the challenges of Malagasy development.
My experiences with LIME affected me on a deep level. Witnessing the poor quality of life and lack of choices most Malagasy have in their lives, there is a certain moral, as well as intellectual, growth that comes with creating a program to address these inequalities. Though our program is one small attempt to give the brightest students of Madagascar a broader range of educational options, the work ethic needed to face untold challenges in the United States, which is essentially another world, inspired me. I did not realize until I was faced with my own challenge, life after Lafayette, that the most important lesson I learned from Madagascar was the importance of hope. I learned that with hope, we find in ourselves what we need to transform the world.