Student Volunteering Week Part 2: African Science Academy
Part 2 of our volunteering week series features African Science Academy, a girls’ school focused on science, maths and technology for gifted girls, based in Accra, Ghana.
ASA was set up by Pembroke alumna Helen Denyer (2012) on behalf of the charity African Gifted Foundation Ghana, whose Founder’s daughter, Rhianna Ilube (2012) attended Pembroke with Helen and was also involved in the creation of the school. Rhianna still supports ASA with student recruitment, media and partnerships, based in the UK. Keep reading for volunteering opportunities if you’d like to get involved!
Both women have a history of volunteering in Ghana and working in education. Rhianna spent summers working in summer camps set up by the African Gifted Foundation in which students from about ten African countries would go on courses on economics, space science, code breaking, and other scientific subjects. The problem was that there was no way to find out if these summer camps had an impact on the students’ lives, and therefore to evaluate the long-term benefits. The decision was made to build a permanent school, inspired by all the talented students who had attended AGF summer academies. Tom Ilube asked if Rhianna had any friends willing to move to Ghana to project manage the enterprise, and Rhianna suggested Helen as she knew she had a strong background and interest in Ghana and education. Helen has been interested in international development for quite some time, having begun her volunteer work in Ghana as a maths teacher in 2011. Her host family at the time was involved in setting up a charity, which introduced her to that aspect of international development work. Helen also volunteered with Global Giving UK, and believes that these experiences were crucial:
“The people I had met on my previous trips to Ghana were ever ready to connect me with agents who could help locate a possible school property, acted as recruitment volunteers to find the first set of girls for our school, and in general would do anything to support the project, inviting me to events and introducing me to people working in similar fields. I am not sure whether I could have completed the challenging task of setting up the African Science Academy in 10 months without all of my friends, who both helped me with the project and kept me sane”
ASA is built on a desire to bring together talented girls from across Africa, providing them with opportunities to study physics, maths and computing while having access to lots of different opportunities and role models in science and technology. Helen says; “For a very long time now I have realised that the key to development can be found in girls and women and their ability to transform entire communities”. ASA functions as a kind of gap year which enables students to intensely study science and maths, and develop new skills, giving them the experience they need to excel at university and, in the long term, apply their skills and knowledge to key problems in their countries and communities.
Many of the girls who attend would have difficulty attending university or even school due to their financial circumstances, despite their huge potential. ASA exposes them to different career options through guest speakers and field trips. They believe that “it is vital to make our girls confident, bold, good public speakers, critical thinkers, and open-minded”, as well as helping them develop the academic ability to apply to university.
Another important aspect of ASA is its diversity. Helen talked about the importance of an international community: “I believe that is vital for everyone to become a global citizen. We can learn so much from each other”. Students are recruited from lots of different countries across Africa, and encouraged to talk to each other and build networks for future collaboration on pan-African problems. Cultural learning is part of life at ASA, with music and dance nights, and basic language classes.
“My dad was clear he wanted kids from all across Africa. The international students at ASA are very brave. They committed to a school that didn’t exist yet, they signed up and they flew to Ghana and don’t go home for a year. They’re very brave, very driven, and they also bring a lot of cultural life.” (RI)
While it’s a challenging project, both in terms of the logistics and, for Helen, living and working away from home, she says she feels she has had a unique and rewarding opportunity. Setting up the first all-girls STEM school in Africa is certainly an impressive achievement for a recent graduate. And Helen sees plenty of room for growth in the future:
“I have so many hopes. I want the school to grow and each year reach more girls who are passionate about maths and science, but without ASA would not be able to complete their education. I want the school to become sustainable and become established so it is not reliant on individuals, both on the funding side and the management side; I want the girls to stay in touch, creating a supporting group of alumni; I want the girls to come back to Africa, to solve some of the continents biggest problems; I want them to be an inspiration to girls across the globe. Most importantly, however, I would like the girls to reach their full potential and make their wildest dreams become reality. These girls will be able to change the world in a positive way and I want to be here to see that!” (HD)
ASA are now looking for female students graduating this year who have a passion for science and maths. Those interested would be ideal for the 3-6 month volunteer placement starting at ASA in August 2017. Volunteers would work as progression mentors, helping the girls with their studies, organising extracurricular activities, and guiding students through their university applications. If you’re interested in being involved find out more on the ASA’s website, or reach out to Helen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Another great way to help is to donate or fundraise through their JustGiving site.
There are so many opportunities out there, says Helen, that anyone can find the right thing for themselves. Knowing what you want to achieve and how you want to work is important, as is talking to past volunteers and finding out more about the kinds of organisations available.