Kako is in her last semester of the IEDP. She is currently living in Fukui, Japan. The time difference between Fukui and Philadelphia meant that I had to wake up really early (for a Sunday) and she had to stay up late for us to be able to have this conversation. However, we had a great time chatting and I am happy to share the main highlights from our conversation below:

Leslie: To start off, tell me a little about your academic background.

Kako: I was at Emory University for the first 2 years of undergraduate and I transferred into Penn for my last 2 years. I studied political science and I also had an East Asian Studies minor. The summer after my junior I applied to the IEDP at GSE as a submatriculant, which meant that I could take 3 classes to count both towards my bachelor’s degree and the Master’s in International Educational Development. One of the great things at Penn is that undergraduate students actually can take graduate level courses as long as the professor is okay with it. So I actually had taken a class before even getting accepted as a Master’s student. I completed my bachelor’s degree in May of 2019

Leslie: That is great that undergraduate students at Penn have the opportunity to make progress towards a Master’s degree before finishing their bachelor’s degree. So when did you become interested in international development or education? 

Kako: So I think at some point later on in undergrad I realized that I’ve always been tutoring or always been around some teaching environment since high school or maybe even younger. I think the pivotal moment was junior year of undergrad. I was in this political science/health and societies class called Healthy Schools that looked at the American education system. It was a service-oriented class. We could go to public schools in the Philly area to work with students there. At the time I was really interested in film and that’s when my professor told me that there was a class at GSE called Ethnographic Filmmaking, which is focused around working with high school students to document their lives. That was sort of the entrance into taking EDUC classes. 

Also, that summer I was going to intern in Japan because I always wanted to come here. It is where my parents are from, and I never got to live here. I applied to an NGO with an office in Tokyo, but it also had the option to apply to the office in Uganda, so I checked it off. I was lucky to get both offers but I ended up taking the Uganda one. Partially because my mom was like “you can go to Tokyo any time and Uganda is a good opportunity.” It was an education NGO. I spent 2 months there and being able to work with students there was great! Right after that I came back to the U.S and I started to look for ways to go back to Africa and I got to visit a few countries in the continent, including Comoros, where I ended up doing my Peace Corps service. 

Leslie: Can you tell me how your Peace Corps service worked out with the submatriculation and the fact that you were part of the IEDP since 2019?

Kako: Yes, so I was a senior in 2019, submatriculated in the IEDP and, as mentioned, I took classes at GSE. Normally, I believe students that submatriculate go straight into the Master’s after finishing their undergraduate studies. I had a sense that I needed a bit more on-the-ground work experience to be able to bring something to the program, partially because of some of the exposure I got as a senior being in classes with GSE students who bring a lot to the table. I think it is totally fine to continue the Master’s right after undergrad, but for myself I had sense that I had done school consecutively for 21 years and I needed something else before going back to GSE. I was picking between a few opportunities. I picked Peace Corps because I wanted something that was long-term, so I could actually learn the language of the place I am working in and get to know the community. As I was thinking about this, I was a little worried about whether deferring my submatriculation enrollment in the Master’s was possible, but it was a very welcoming and easy process. Unfortunately, COVID happened and I only got to be in the Comoros Islands from June 2019 to March 2020.

Leslie: Tell me more about the work you did in the Peace Corps.

Kako: I was a volunteer in the education sector. I was part of the TEFL certification program, so you teach English but you go through the TEFL curriculum and get a certificate by the end of service. I was placed in a village in the north of the Comoros. It was actually quite relatively urban. I was teaching in two middle schools and a primary school as well as an adult outside of school. That was the main job and, of course, there are other aspects, like being in the community, learning the language, and being with a host family.

In terms of what I learned, I think it is a lot about lesson planning… Continuous lesson planning around a curriculum that does not quite make sense for the English level that students might be in, as well as regarding relevance to their lives.  Comoros used to be a French colony and  the education system is still quite French. So, you know… grappling with “okay I have to abide by this curriculum.” And also there were ties between our program and the Ministry of Education there. Seeing what the Ministry of Education wants, seeing the levels of students and their interests, and all of the environmental factors and the impact on resources. A huge monsoon hit the village I was in right before I got there so a lot of school buildings were damaged.

I had to be creative with lesson planning and think about how to keep students engaged. I was teaching at different levels and different interests because of the primary school and the middle schools and adults…Adults are so interested because they totally see the importance in their lives. I think something interesting that I saw is that Comoros is often seen as a remote island and many Americans might not know about it. But the lives of the people there are so transnational.  Many of their relatives have gone to France to earn money. Many people from Comoros go to do business in Tanzania or buy goods from there, so they know that English has power. There was a lot of demand for English learning from adults.

Leslie: Can you tell me more about the education projects you worked on?

Kako: I did not have a formal education project, because usually that happens in the second year and I was in my first year when I got evacuated. But  there was this radio program that was being planned. The village I was in had a radio station. So we were brainstorming English lessons that a local English teacher and I would have with a different guest student every week. It was going to be kind of a review session for the big national exam the students have to take in the summer. These lessons would be broadcasted over the radio to make them more accessible because anyone can listen to the radio: students as well as parents. Unfortunately, I got evacuated right as this was about to take shape.

Leslie: How has your experience in Comoros shaped your interest within international education development?

Kako: Related to this is the fact that I played a lot of sports when I was in Comoros. I played with male teams and they were very welcoming. And I also played with girls’ teams, which were rare, but they existed. I saw how a big NGO funded a girls’ sports in Comoros but not a lot of the money trickled down as far as I saw. It felt like it was also the case for multilateral organizations and the government. For example, there was the Multilingual Celebration day, Mother Tongue Day. As a Peace Corps volunteer I got to be there, but it was so ironic because the officials there, including government officials, had the habit of speaking French, even on Mother Language Day. So, they had to scramble to translate all the things they were going to present from French into the local language. That is when I realized that there is such a disconnect between these big organizations, government, multilateral organizations, NGOs. So at this point, I am interested in gaining some experience or at least some insight into the workings of those organizations. I want to see how we can potentially better bridge policies and actual education for students. It is very easy to be critical when you are on the ground, but I won’t be able to do anything unless I understand how both sides work. 

Leslie: Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us today. Do you have any last words of advice for people considering applying to the program?

Kako: Take advantage of the free application! Penn does a holistic process, so do not be intimidated by the fact that it is an Ivy League institution.