Even though this is her second semester at Lafayette, Rebeka Ramangamihanta ’16 still has a hard time believing she’s living her dream of studying in America.
“Sometimes I look in the mirror and say, ‘Is it really true?’” says Ramangamihanta, the first high school student to complete the Lafayette Initiative for Malagasy Education (LIME) and attend college in the United States. “Without this program I would not be where I am today.”
Started in 2010 by Lafayette students under the guidance of David Stifel, associate professor of economics, LIME is a peer mentoring program that helps Malagasy students navigate the daunting process of applying to U.S. colleges and universities. For the past three winter breaks, a select group of students have traveled to Madagascar to work with students from the Lycee Andohalo public high school. They focus on a variety of skills, including preparing for the SAT and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), filling out admission forms, and practicing English, a third language for most students behind Malagasy and French.
This year, the 10-member group delivered daily vocabulary and math lessons to 35 Malagasy students and spent a lot of time helping the group craft personal statements, a “make or break” element of the admission process, says Libby Lucy ’15 (New Hope, Pa.), a double major in international affairs and women’s & gender studies.
“They’re very good in math and science, but they have trouble expressing themselves in English,” says Lucy, LIME co-captain. “I wish they could take the SAT in French, but I guess that defeats the purpose” of attending college in America.
Caitlin Hope ’15 (Barrington, Ill.), an English major and LIME co-captain, says the experience reinforced her goal of becoming a teacher.
“I wouldn’t have known what I was getting into,” she says, noting Lafayette students continue to mentor their Malagasy counterparts back on campus via email and Skype. “There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t get a Facebook message [from a Malagasy student].”
Electronic encouragement was what kept Ramangamihanta going during the long year she studied for the SAT and TOEFL.
“They really gave me a lot of support,” says Ramangamihanta, who was one of six Malagasy students in the first LIME cohort, and the first from her high school to attend college in the U.S. “That’s not a common thing in my culture.”
Five LIME students are applying for admission this fall to a variety of U.S. colleges, including Lafayette, Lehigh, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, Clark, and Franklin & Marshall. Currently, there are only 142 Malagasy students studying in the United States.
“This isn’t just a feeder to Lafayette,” Stifel says. “We’d like to have as large an impact as possible.”
The program has been funded by Lafayette with support from Stifel and Liz McMahon, professor of mathematics, in addition to several alumni and students. To continue the work, LIME students are currently involved in a more comprehensive fund raising effort.
Ramangamihanta wants to start her own non-governmental organization and create education centers in developing countries. With that in mind, she’s considering majoring in international affairs or economics.
The transition from Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, to Lafayette has been at times overwhelming, Ramangamihanta says, but her LIME friends and the International Student Association have helped bridge the cultural gap and provided a community where she feels at home. The biggest challenge, she says, is taking courses in English, a language she’s still trying to master.
“The first couple of times were hard because I had to focus to understand what was being said and it made me really tired,” she says, crinkling her face in frustration. “But it’s getting easier.”
Next January, Ramangamihanta plans to return to Madagascar as a member of the LIME 2014 team. She’s excited to see her family and inspire other students through her example.
“If everyone’s given the same opportunity, then everyone can go far in life,” she says.
Kristen Schultz ’13 contributed to this article.