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Make a Difference for Others, See the Difference in Yourself

Written by Meghan Swope

Learning the local language, Mandika, by candlelight

Scholarships can defray the cost of college, though applying for them is not always an exciting process. IC offers a truly unique scholarship experience -- a scholarship for an educational experience obtained through service -- in Africa. Students with majors in either the Roy H. Park School of Communications or the Department of Politics are eligible to apply for the Reginald “Reggie” Simmons Memorial Award, which covers the cost of participation in the eight-week Operation Crossroads Africa (OCA) summer volunteer program for two students each year.

Reggie Simmons ’75 was a renowned scholar of political science and African affairs. He devoted his career to improving the lives of African citizens. When Simmons passed away in 2003, at the age of 50, his former classmate and the current CEO of Disney, Bob Iger ’73, established the award in his honor.

The Reggie Simmons award is an opportunity that has truly changed the life of its inaugural recipients. When Michelle Diemer ’08 received the award in summer 2007, she had no idea how ensconced in West Africa she would eventually become.

Michelle volunteered in Jambanjelly, working to build a library for the villagers there. Upon her return to Ithaca College she developed the Books for Gambia campaign, in an attempt to raise the money needed to furnish the library with 25,000 books.

Michelle returned to West Africa following graduation, after being rejected from some of the jobs she applied for in the states. “Each time I received the notorious two-lined letter stating that the position I'd applied for had been filled, I would be somewhat relieved because I knew my heart was leading me back to service work in Gambia,” she says. Michelle took a job teaching English near Jambanjelly, making roughly $150 a month. After some time, she relocated to Gambia to become a senior manager at a technologies company.

“My experience with the Reggie Simmons Memorial Scholarship is the only reason I am here right now, as I didn't even know where Gambia was before that summer,” Michelle explains from her office in Gambia. “My first summer in Africa was one of the most challenging and eye-opening experiences of my life.”

Fuse’s own Jeff Goodwin ’10 was a 2008 recipient of the award. Jeff worked in Jambanjelly alongside local volunteers to finish the construction of the library Michelle had started.

“The application was due around finals week, so it was a choice between studying more or filling out the application”, remembers Jeff. “I realized this could be one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I knew that I would be kicking myself later if I didn’t apply.”

Jeff also shed some light on the differences between Western and African ways of life. “We used to always say ‘If you can do one thing in a day, it’s a productive day’,” he says. “[In America] we expect things to happen so fast, but in Africa they do things at their own speed. There’s no sense of urgency, which is nice at times but is not what most of us were used to.”

Due to supply schedules in Africa, the books from IC’s successful Books for Gambia campaign began to arrive just as Jeff was leaving. Jeff has remained in contact with the villagers who bike to a nearby city and use internet cafes to e-mail Jeff about the project and hear about his life back home in Ithaca.

Jeff stayed in a family compound, which was about the size of an average front yard here in the states. On average, 40 people live on one family compound in two different houses. Their house was divided into an open dormitory room for girls, another for boys, and a small living area with a separate bathroom and no running water.

When talking to the previous award recipients, it’s obvious that this experience is something they are very passionate about. As 2008 recipient Jen Nevins ‘09 put it, “I could talk about how fantastic the experience was all day, and I want to help in any way I can to get students more interested in programs like this.”



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