After studying education with her African studies certificate, alumna Rebecca Gross (COL ’14) designed and founded an education initiative in Malawi that aims to teach young girls leadership skills by helping them propose viable solutions to community problems.
The initiative, called Student Driven Solutions, was created in December, and students in the program are currently in their fourth week of lessons. Gross said that the five-month curriculum combines both practical lessons of financial literacy and business skills with active participation. The class will culminate in a final project in which students will work in groups to identify a problem in their community to address.

“Students have said that early pregnancy and early marriage is a critical issue that keeps girls from completing their education,” Gross wrote. “Girls feel pressured by their families and communities to marry in order to secure their financial future.”

SDS’s teaching team is comprised of Gross and two recent graduates of Chancellor College, which is located in Zomba, Malawi. Current students at Chancellor College serve as mentors to the girls in the program, while trained secondary school teachers lead the lessons.
Gross, who graduated with an economics major and an African studies certificate, wrote her thesis on the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal of Universal Primary Education’s impact on the quality of Sub-Saharan Africa and citizens’ satisfaction with primary schooling. The goal’s target is to ensure that all children worldwide will be able to complete primary schooling by 2015.

“Most countries have not met the goal of full universal enrollment in primary school, but African countries have made great progress,” African studies professor Lahra Smith, whom Gross named as one of her most inspiring professors, wrote in an email. “Rebecca’s thesis focused on quality of education, not just access, and that is an even harder goal in sub-Saharan Africa. The rising enrollment rates, which have been rapid in some places, required new teachers, new school facilities, new textbooks. Not all of that has come together fast enough.”

Prior to her thesis completion, Gross had both firsthand and secondhand involvement in education. She worked with One Heart Source as a teacher in a village in Tanzania and saw how enthusiastic her mom was as an elementary school teacher, which Gross said piqued her interest in education.

“After completing the thesis, I better understood the challenges to education in the region and was all the more determined to effect change in whatever way I could,” Gross wrote in an email.

SDS’s website highlights that the program chose to teach financial literacy to girls in Malawi because it is one of the poorest countries in the world yet home to the greatest number of citizens who said they planned to start a business in the next year in a survey. One of the program’s main goals is financial literacy, because Gross said it is key to stabilizing developing economies. Moreover, the program focuses on girls because only 13 percent of Malawian girls complete four years of secondary school, according to the SDS website.

Gross described characteristics of a typical female Malawian student’s day: She walks a long distance to get to school, her teacher is responsible for at least 40 students (all of various ages and different proficiency levels), her classmates may harass her by attempting her to engage in sexual acts and she must prioritize her chores over studying once she gets home.

“While many schools in Malawi emphasize rote memorization, we focus heavily on group work and active participation,” Gross wrote. “At SDS, we believe that creativity and teamwork sparks innovation and empowers students to imagine their own path to community development.”

Gross said that her time at Georgetown helped inspire her to found Student Driven Solutions.

“Without the inspiration of my fellow Hoyas, I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to become a leader,” Gross wrote. “I cannot stress enough how important it is to be surrounded by a community that challenges you and makes you think differently. … Undoubtedly, Georgetown’s mission to become men and women in the service of others has guided me in my journey since graduation.”

Education, Inquiry and Justice Professor Sabrina Wesley-Nero, another professor whom Gross named as one of her most inspiring professors, said that Georgetown has an obligation to help students examine injustice in the world.

“Vital to Georgetown’s identity are the basic values of social justice, the recognition of the power of education and a commitment to doing good for others,” Wesley-Nero wrote in an email. “These aspects … of being a Hoya do not end once students graduate.”

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