“Just sign up!” Volunteer Discusses her experience with African Community Learning Program
Hannah assists Motaz with his homework at ACLP.
On the first day we opened African Community Learning Program’s door Hannah Peifer was there. On the last day of our 2017-2018 school year, Hannah was there. She witnessed the rainy days we scrambled to start our sessions and the sunny days we celebrated our lessons’ themes. I met Hannah as a first-semester University of Pennsylvania student in a class we shared called “Youth and Democracy in Africa.” When Hannah later learned about the launch of African Community Learning Program on campus, she answered the call and served. Hannah reflects on her two-semester involvement with African Community Learning Program (ACLP).
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in northeast Pennsylvania near Scranton. I moved to Philadelphia to study at the University of Pennsylvania, where I double-majored in African Studies and Biology. While at Penn, I had the opportunity to intern with a health and development NGO in western Kenya over the course of two summers. I also studied Swahili for three years. I graduated in 2017 and spent the past year doing research at the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania. I am currently attending medical school at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. I plan to continue pursuing my passion for working toward global health equity through international collaboration here in medical school.
Hannah presents during ACLP language theme on Kiswahili.
Q: What has volunteering with African Community Learning Program (ACLP) meant to you?
My time with ACLP was often the highlight of my week. Reflecting on this past year, it was one of my most meaningful activities overall. The students were very energetic and working with them was a true privilege. Hearing their stories and seeing their progress not only inspired me, but also reinforced the importance of this organization.
Q: What progress did you observed while with ACLP?
The most important progress I observed in ACLP’s students was growing self-confidence. These students are smart, and they need to be told that. First and second-generation immigrant students face unique challenges (e.g. language barriers) and may require additional support for them to reach their full potential. At ACLP, we went beyond support with schoolwork alone to celebrate the unique culture and languages of each student. We encouraged students to be proud not only of their academic accomplishments, but also their unique background. Providing this supportive and inclusive environment created a space for these students to excel. Their success and confidence grew synergistically.
Hannah poses with two ACLP students, Raimat and Helima.
Q: What has been a memorable moment for you with the organization?
One of the most memorable moments for me with ACLP was when a student shared a poem with me that she had written during my second semester with the organization. She was so proud of her work and was intrinsically motivated to write outside of her normal class requirements. It was even more meaningful because the poem was about the student’s grandmother who was still in Nigeria. This particular student was very shy when I first met her, so I was ecstatic when she wanted to share her poem spontaneously. It also reminded me about the power of positive reinforcement from mentors in encouraging students to continue working hard and pursuing their passions.
Q: What have you learned about yourself as a result of volunteering with us?
I have learned how to acknowledge my own limitations without letting it cause paralysis. Without having spent more than a couple of months in Kenya, I was hesitant about coming across as ignorant and/or paternalistic when engaging with students and other volunteers. After talking with Aminata and beginning to volunteer, however, I was welcomed with true African hospitality. I was also reminded of the power of cultural humility and the beauty that comes from celebrating diversity. While I do not know what it is like to move across the globe and experience a language barrier, culture shock, and even unacceptance and discrimination, I do know how to listen and I do want to learn as much as I can secondhandedly. I was also able to contribute my own experiences, acknowledging they were relatively limited. I will continue my efforts to be an ally of those making similar adjustments. My time with ACLP was so meaningful that I want to continue working with immigrant populations here in Rhode Island and have begun taking steps to do so.
Hannah works on ACLP students' African countries group project.
Q: What have you learned from the ACLP Community?
The ACLP Community reinforced the importance of celebrating diversity while fostering inclusion. While each student was from Africa, they were from different regions and different countries, spoke different languages, and spent different proportions of their lives there. Some identified the U.S. as home, some Africa, and many considered both places home. I myself experienced culture shock moving from rural Pennsylvania to Philadelphia, so I can only begin to imagine what it was like to move across an ocean. Witnessing the students navigate the complexities associated with this adjustment as children was inspiring. My time with ACLP also reminded me that we all have more in common than we sometimes acknowledge. My 13-year-old brother who grew up in rural Pennsylvania liked the same activities (video games and soccer) as one of the students who spent much of his childhood in Sudan. I think we could all benefit from focusing a bit more on what unites us as humans.
Aminata taught me that when you want to do something, you cannot wait. There was never going to be a perfect time for this college student, journalist, and mother of three to launch an organization like ACLP. Aminata and her husband saw a need in their community with which they could identify and acted. The world would be a lot better if more people stopped letting excuses and inconveniences prevent them from doing great things.
Hannah poses with ACLP founder Aminata Sy during the organization's volunteer celebration.
Q: What is your message to prospective ACLP volunteers and potential supporters?
Just sign up! I would tell anyone who is hesitant to volunteer that you have something to give. While there are certainly challenges associated with moving to the U.S. as a child, just having lived in two countries and speaking two or more languages gives these students such a unique perspective. If given the right environment and support systems, they will flourish and become the future leaders of our communities locally, nationally, and globally.
Q: Is there anything else that you will like to add?
I’d just like to say THANK YOU to the students, volunteers, and Aminata for making this past year so memorable. This organization will always have a special place in my heart. I was very sad to leave it behind when I moved, but I know that ACLP will continue to flourish and expand.
Hannah receives her ACLP volunteer certificate during the organization's Africa Celebration.
Aminata Sy is the founder and president of African Community Learning Program, a multimedia journalist, and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies international relations and English. She is also the founder, editor, and publisher of the #500EmpoweringAfricanStories Project.
To support African Community Learning Program visit: africancommunitylearningprogram.org
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