Eritrean- American, Mars Keflom talks interning in Eritrea and striving to make an impact in African development through Education
By Sesen Paulos,
Mars Keflom’s passion for African development took her to Eritrea in 2012. Over a six month period she interned with the office of the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS), which matches diaspora youth with meaningful volunteer opportunities.
Keflom was placed at the St. Mary’s school in Asmara where she taught English to fourth and fifth graders. Her experience not only drew her closer to her heritage but also solidified her commitment to education.
Currently in her final year at University of Cincinnati, she hopes to use her degree in international development to further contribute to Africa’s development.
AfricanDevJobs: What motivated you to seek a teaching internship in Eritrea?
Mars Keflom: As a proud Eritrean, I am constantly thinking about my country, when I can go back and visit, what I can do to help, so choosing to do an internship or some kind of volunteer work in Eritrea was only natural. I had just started my third year of university, and was thinking about ways I could do something in Eritrea. The National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS) offers many opportunities for Eritrean youth to become active participants in the development of their country. On a previous trip to Eritrea, I knew many people who volunteered their time with the organization and because of that, I wrote a motivation letter to NUEYS on why I wanted to volunteer, and how I’d like to help whether it be through youth empowerment, organizing activities, or community service. Once I expressed my desire for helping youth and children, they were able to partner me with the director at St. Mary Elementary, Junior and Secondary school in Asmara, Eritrea, which allowed me to teach English to fourth and fifth graders.
ADJ: What valuable lessons did you learn about Eritrea’s education system and what areas do you think need improvement?
MK: I love how education in Eritrea is taken very serious and encouraged at such a young age. You will see many children in Asmara who have tutors, or during the summer time, will be enrolled in an English language course,
computer class, or some other summer enrichment program. Living in America, from an early age you are exposed to technology and sometimes even asked to complete projects with a computer or other means of technology. Being in Eritrea and not having access to those resources as easily as in the US but still being able to accomplish and perform at the same or at an advance level gives the children an added skill as compared to those who fall dependent on technology. I hope to see improvement with resources in Eritrea, such as books, more libraries, bigger classrooms, more teachers and also integrated projects in lower level grades to teach students more early on. Luckily, many Eritrean youth in the diaspora engage in activities to help contribute to development in Eritrea through providing resources as well as volunteering their time to teach and share their knowledge.
ADJ: Explain what a normal day at your internship was like. What were your biggest responsibilities?
MK: All students and teachers are to be at St. Mary’s school by 7 AM. At that time, students form single file lines in an area right outside of the teacher’s area, where we begin with prayer, a moment of silence in memory of Eritrea’s fallen heroes, and the sing the Eritrean National Anthem. Classes begin at 7:10 AM. I taught English to seven different classes; four separate fourth grade classes and three separate fifth grade classes. Although I had at least two classes once a day, I would have classes back to back or maybe a few hours in between. Whenever I had time to spare, I would go into our teachers lounge and socialize, exchange information about what I was teaching, get advice, or if students were in their gym period, I would get a group of students to play spelling games. Classes are generally about thirty-five minutes each, with a thirty minute recess or gym period at about 9:30 AM everyday.
Within my classes, we engaged in various activities such as going over spelling, sentence structure, pronunciation, vocabulary tests, and we’d have reading days to name a few. If the bell rang, signaling the end of the period, students stayed in their classrooms; teachers were the only ones that rotated from classroom to classroom. My classes would end usually around 12 PM. Most of the time, after classes, I would play spelling games with prizes that I would give to my students, walk some to their bus stops, or go to the NUEYS office. While teaching, some of the biggest responsibility I had was trying to get all the children to stay on task, focus, as well as listen. Being that I was new there, some students didn’t take me serious or tried to test me to see how I would react, but after a few days they seemed to cooperate pretty well. One problem I experienced was while speaking in English, some words I pronounced would be a little different than what they were used to hearing, which would sometimes cause confusion.
ADJ: In what ways do you foresee your internship experience helping you professionally in the future?
MK: Although I have much I would like to accomplish in the future, I hope to do more work with assisting immigrant and refugee families improve their lives, more specifically through education. Additionally, I wish to continue teaching English as a second language because I am sure that with the knowledge I’ve gained from my experience in Eritrea, it can only benefit me in attaining that and much more.
ADJ: Will you integrate what you learned in Eritrea into your teaching in anyway?
MK: If am to teach an ESL class, I will be sure to use the knowledge I have gained in Eritrea in my teaching. My experience has allowed me to better my communication skills, learn how to have more patience, and more importantly to set expectations, because students will exceed them as long as you are persistent and challenge them.
ADJ: Looking back, what is one thing you wish you knew or prepared for before starting your internship?
MK: Looking back now, before starting my internship I wish I were better prepared with materials, such as reading books for the class, worksheets, and other instructional aides that could have been of help. Although it would have been nice, without these items it did not seem to pose a problem for me, as I was able to make use of what I had, as well as utilize and learn more about the other resources the school had to offer.
ADJ: What is the most valuable experience you took away from your experience?
MK: My parents are both from Eritrea and have always made sure my siblings and I make education our number one priority in life. Although I have never taken my education for granted, through my experience at St. Mary’s, I feel I have become more humble, thankful, and motivated when it comes to my education. The students I had, at such a young age, were eager to learn, never complained about how squished they might have been sitting next to their classmates for long periods of time, were embarrassed to ask for a pencil if they forgot it when they got to class, and would love asking questions to gain knowledge. Over my time in Eritrea, I was able to reflect a lot on my understanding of school and attitude towards it, and I feel with this experience it has made me a better, more determined person. One of my favorite quotes, “service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth,” by Muhammad Ali is the perfect way to pronounce my experience in Eritrea.
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Sesen Paulos is an intern for AfricanDevJobs. She is currently pursuing a degree at Ohio State University in Public Health. Follow her tweets: @obsesenovrSesen