My name is Mam-Yassin Sarr, and I am from The Gambia, West Africa. Growing up in a society where the average family subsists on about $1 a day, I have always known that the only way out for the majority of the people would be education. I have also always felt that I had to be a part of the solution. Therefore, my academic and service life has been focused on practical ways to play my part. I did my undergraduate studies in Sociology and French because, to give the best service, I needed to understand my society better and also because most countries in Africa have either English or French as official languages.
Then I realized that in order for Gambians to take advantage of and play their part in a global society, they would have to have a good understanding of its lingua franca, English while honoring their native languages. So, I did my Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (Tesol), with a concentration in Reading, Writing, and Curriculum Development. As I neared the end of my Master’s, I knew that instead of being in the classroom, what would be more far-reaching would be to train teachers and help institute an educational system that can handle the problems the Gambian Educational System currently faces. So, I went into an Educational Specialist degree next. My focus there was World Class Standards and the relationship between the School and the Community, given that I am from a communal society.
I transferred from this program to Syracuse University, where I got a Certificate of Advanced Study in Teaching and Curriculum. I believe that especially the poorest students need the highest and best designed standards to go by in order to move out of their current state of economic exclusion. I also believe that with modest financial support and mentors that are very visionary in their approach to education, they can attain the highest levels of education. I have, therefore, endeavored, throughout my educational journey, to finance my studies myself through work-study programs, assistantships, and lecturer positions. This way, I can add yet another example for my fellow female Gambians to see that it is possible to go as far as one dreams in furthering one’s education, no matter what financial constraints one faces.
I have worked actively on issues ranging from HIV education, Female Genital Mutilation, Environmental Health, Family Planning, Refugee Education and Support, Multicultural Education, to Mediation and Conflict Resolution, Interfaith Cooperation, Youth Advocacy, and Service Learning Education. I returned to The Gambia to continue doing what I was born to do, help empower Africans, especially African women and children, by providing them with excellent educational opportunities.
One of my main goals with Starfish International is to establish a state of the art academy of excellence that will provide the Gambian girl-child an advanced education from preschool to graduate school. Every participant in this educational endeavor, including students, teachers, staff, volunteers and benefactors will be motivated by an end goal of service to humanity. Every participant will be challenged with the goal of finding effective methods of infusing “service to others” in each activity of the academy. In order to achieve the greatest impact in the education of the students, the academy will also provide training and research opportunities for teachers in Africa and around the globe. By providing a diverse staff from around the world, experts in their respective fields, I hope to give the Gambian girls an unparalleled educational experience.
To accomplish this goal, my husband and I have created a nonprofit organization called Starfish International. Its mission includes the provision of international service opportunities centered primarily on meeting the educational needs of Gambian girls. Until resources allow us to build our academy, we are running our programs out of our Library grounds in my native village of Lamin. Given the centrality of reading to educational progress and the fact that the average Gambian child does not have ready access to reading materials, a Library is invaluable. From these library grounds, we offer after-school tutorials, chidlren’s classes, adult literacy classes, health and community outreach programs, small business development programs, and an intensive summer school program focused on self-development and the tools our students need to be change agents in local and global issues.
I have been training all my life, both academically and spiritually, to reach this goal, coordinate such an effort, and provide such a service. For me, this mission has always been a personal one. However, raising my biological children, my younger sister, and my Starfish children has solidified even more, my conviction that the solution to the problems facing humanity today, especially in Africa, lie within them. Moreover, the extent to which we overcome these problems depends on how much we invest in these custodians of humanity.