From Mali to D.C., searching for education

Modibo Dembele has, for the last three years, spent his nights in Thurston Hall, working as a University Police officer while taking law classes in hopes of one day returning to his home country of Mali to launch a political career.

He finished his last shift Monday, clocking in six years of policing and three GW degrees. Dembele began working as a legal adviser for Voice of America this week.

Dembele, who graduated from the GW Law School in May with a 96 percent tuition cut as an employee, pursued his degree while also working full-time, 16-hour shifts as an officer.

He took on the extensive work schedule after he realized he would need to pay for the rest of his degree. College is free in Mali.

“Life is a war,” Dembele said. “It wasn’t easy – not because I didn’t have the skill. It wasn’t easy because of the long hours. I was making a trade with myself.”

At times, he had to work 48 hours straight to have enough time for classes and studying.

He said GW has given him the tools to succeed in politics when he returns to Mali in the future.

But he was no stranger to higher education before he came to the U.S.

Before moving to the District, Dembele earned a bachelor’s in law from Mali’s National College of Administration of Bamako. He also worked at the city hall in Mali’s capital as a legal adviser to the mayor for four years before deciding to pursue a degree in the U.S. and one day return to help his “troubled” country.

He came to D.C. in 2004, enrolling at Howard University to learn English before moving on to earn a master’s in business administration from the University of the District of Columbia.

Dembele began working as a University Police officer in the last year of his master’s program, making money on the side of his studies. But he graduated the year the recession hit, and after job prospects that aligned with his degree fell through, he decided to stay on.

The hard work, he said, was what makes his success so rewarding.

“When you really struggle a lot to get something, you value it, because you know how hard it was to get it,” Dembele said.

Dembele added that once he goes back to Mali, he wants to teach younger generations about his experiences in the U.S., noting that many youth view the country as an “El Dorado” and do not realize that adjusting to a new environment outside of home can be difficult.

He said he found success by placing his studies above all other interests.

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