Alumna fundraises to bring three Gambian students to U.S. colleges

Media Credit: Lisa Blitstein | Contributing Photo Editor

Ashleigh DeLuca, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communication in 2013, is raising money to send three students that she worked with in Gambia to college in the U.S.

Updated: May 22, 2017 at 4:05 p.m.

An alumna, who spent time educating children in Gambia, is working to send three of her former students to college in the United States.

Ashleigh DeLuca, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communication in 2013, is raising money to send three 23-year-old students from Gambia, who she worked with when they were in middle school, to St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, N.Y. DeLuca is under a tight deadline to raise $270,000 to pay the three students’ first-year tuition by the end of July so they can attend college in September.

About nine years ago, after graduating high school, DeLuca decided she wasn’t quite ready for college yet. Instead of heading to college, she opted to travel to Gambia to teach English.

After a few weeks of working with sixth graders, DeLuca noticed that some were just barely skating by, while others were excelling. She said some of the students understood that education was the key to a better life for themselves and their families.

DeLuca wanted to give these hardworking kids even more opportunities to improve in the classroom, so she decided to create an Advanced Placement class, where she could work with the more advanced students.

The 16 students in her class were promised that if they got through middle school, she would work on getting scholarships for all of them to attend high school in Gambia, a level of education that is rare for many students there.

DeLuca kept her promise. She funded the 16 students’ private school tuition, school books, uniforms and exam fees. But as each year progressed, students dropped out and only eight stayed in the program for high school.

She raised the money through a program she started called the Starling Sponsorship Program, which works to find sponsors in the U.S. to pay for students’ education.

The Starling Sponsorship Program was rebooted about a year ago when three of her former students – Penda Jallow, Awa Jarju and Adama Jarju – approached her for help to attend college in the U.S.

“They’d work by candlelight for hours, really meticulously trying to get their homework done and do it the right way.”

DeLuca is currently using GoFundMe to raise money and, since she started the campaign in March, she’s raised $1,500 toward her goal through donations from friends and family.

The students are the only three that received their high school diplomas from the group of eight students who attended private school funded by DeLuca. Many of the other children ended up dropping out before finishing high school because they had to help their families or were married off at young ages.

“The kids came to me and I was so excited to hear not only had they gotten their high school diplomas, but that they were inspired and got the message I had been telling them nine years ago that education was important,” DeLuca said. “They had the power in their hands to make a better life for themselves and their families.”

When DeLuca first went to Gambia through an international teaching program, she faced a culture shock. She experienced lack of running water, electricity and paved roads in the Gambian village where she was teaching, but these were problems that DeLuca’s students faced on a daily basis.

The village surrounding the school was comprised of mostly huts with dirt floors and holes in the ground that locals used as bathrooms. Many of DeLuca’s students had to help clean, cook and work on the farm. DeLuca said she had never seen such hard-working kids before.

“They’d work by candlelight for hours, really meticulously trying to get their homework done and do it the right way,” she said. “When I found about that, I was blown away.”

“One of the reasons we want to continue our education is so that we can remove our family from the poverty in our community.”

DeLuca said she enjoyed getting to know the three students during her time in Gambia and as she helped them with the college application process. Over the past year, the three students have been accepted to six universities: Keuka College, College of New Rochelle, Warren Willson College, St. Thomas Aquinas College, Roberts Wesleyn College and St. Louis University.

Each of the students have different career aspirations. Adama Jarju, who DeLuca said is the most outgoing and the “biggest goofball,” plans to study computer science so he can help expand internet access in Gambia. Awa Jarju, Adama’s twin, is the complete opposite, DeLuca said. She is more quiet and wants to study business, so that she can start a hotel chain to create jobs for Gambians.

Jallow, who was the last student to join the A.P.-style class, plans to study nursing so that she can help to eradicate diseases in Gambia, DeLuca said.

Adama Jarju said that DeLuca helped him and his fellow students grow in all aspects, more than just academically. Without the financial and academic help from DeLuca, he said that he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to apply to college and further help his family.

“One of the reasons we want to continue our education is so that we can remove our family from the poverty in our community,” Jarju said.

DeLuca said the recent political shift regarding the immigration ban on Muslim countries has only motivated her to bring her former students to college in the U.S. Gambia is a Muslim-majority country, so she said she is now concerned that after all of the students’ hard work, they won’t be able to come to college here even if she is able to raise the money.

Deluca said that she wants to use her program to show that Americans welcome Muslims, despite the decisions of elected officials.

“I wanted it to be just my small way of sending a message to whoever was taking notice,” she said. “That yes, there are Americans who don’t agree with the hatred that’s being spewed.”

This post was updated to reflect the following corrections:
DeLuca’s name was originally spelled Deluca in two instances. We reported that DeLuca taught English for a year in Gambia, it was about three and a half months. We regret these errors.

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