Hi all. For the blog post for this week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wamweni. Last semester, Wamweni and I spent many many hours on Zoom working on our group technical proposals, so it was great to be able to learn about her experiences outside of class. Below are the main highlights of our conversation:
Leslie: Can you tell us a little a bit about yourself?
Wamweni: I am originally from Zambia. I left my home country in 2006, when I was almost 11. My family and I first settled in Pennsylvania, but about six months later we moved to Florida, where I completed high school. I attended Stetson University, located near Orlando, where I majored in International Studies with a minor in Religious Studies, which I completed in the Spring of 2017.
Leslie: When did you become interested in international development or education?
Wamweni: I have been interested in education for a long time. As a kid I wanted to be a teacher. As I grew older, I changed my mind and I wanted to become a lawyer because I was interested in advocating for people and protecting people. That’s the track I was taking in undergrad by studying international studies. When I got to college, I got introduced to the idea of social justice. I received a Social Justice Ambassador Scholarship from my university, which also included a leadership role on campus as an ambassador for four years. I got to work with so many other nonprofits doing fundraisers and projects, hosting events on campus, bringing in guest speakers from different backgrounds. This really helped me realize a lot of my passion for education because my focus was education in developing countries. All my fundraisers or events targeted education in developing countries. As I began to become more interested in nonprofit and development, I also began to question whether I wanted to do law anymore because I was like “law is one thing, but social justice is another thing.”
For my required internship at university, I got to intern in D.C with an education nonprofit, targeting reading programs in elementary and middle schools. Local leaders would show up to schools to read to children. You could have a CEO of a company showing up to these schools. It could be different people from different levels and fields who would still be involved with nonprofit. I really loved that idea. I did not get to interact with the children because it was during the summer. I was prepping everything for the school year, recruiting people, organizing a gala fundraiser…mostly office work. But this experience made me realize nonprofit was the track I wanted to be in.
Leslie: How did you continue to explore this interest after this summer program?
Wamweni: After graduation I did City Year in Boston. I served at an elementary school, where I worked with a third-grade classroom. The reason I did that is because I did not want to go straight into grad school. I was still learning more about myself. I told myself I would take two years off just to dive deeper into education. I thought that in the future I want to impact education, work with teachers, and build schools, and I want to understand what it’s like to work from the inside.
After City Year, I moved to New Jersey to work with a charter high school as part of an AmeriCorps service. I worked with 9th and 10th students. It was more of a tutoring program. I had my own students. I prepared my own lessons. I had to mentor these kids. I had to do much more than I have ever done before, so it was a great learning experience. I really enjoyed it.
When my AmeriCorps service year was over, I still wanted to stay. I got promoted to be an AmeriCorps supervisor at the high school. So, the following year I was managing the tutorial program, training incoming tutors, monitoring them and coaching them throughout year. I also worked on developing the program, because when I was doing it, I saw a few weak links here and there. So when I had the opportunity, I communicated my ideas and made a couple changes. I feel like I really improved the program for students and tutors.
Leslie: That sounds like an awesome experience. Can you tell me what are some issues that you saw in the education system in the U.S?
Wamweni: I would say that often what defines the quality of education that some schools provide is the location and the community that they are serving. Both schools that I worked at in Boston and Newark were inner city schools. We were serving low-income communities, mostly students of color. In Boston, most of my students were Hispanic and in Newark the majority were African American. If you are in an inner city school, you are bound to not have that many resources. For example, the high school did not have a library, which was shocking to me. This is a high school I am talking about…These kids need books. What got me through high school was my love for books, spending so much time at the library. But my students didn’t have that.
Another thing is that some people that serve the inner city communities come in with certain stereotypes and this reflects on how they treat students. Because a student walks in looking this way or maybe uses this language… People assume that they are bound to not pass this class or they don’t care about their academic performance. For minor errors, some teachers might think, “I am just going to send them out of my classroom.” Based on my previous trainings on topics like microaggression and social justice, I picked up on these things easily. I would not be afraid to bring such things up in professional development meetings and say: “We need to talk about this. We need to do a training on this. We need to be aware of ourselves.”
Good thing is that at the high school I worked at, they were open to this criticism and actually doing something about it. The school I worked at was so focused on building students up and sending them to college, but other inner city schools don’t have the privilege of having a tutorial program that supports the students or find ways to provide the resources they need like textbooks or other school supplies.
Leslie: Thank you for sharing your experience. This really helps people to understand that the U.S also faces a lot of challenges and opportunities for improvement in the education system. Now my next question is about your master’s degrees, plural because you are doing both the IEDP program and the Non-Profit Leadership program at the School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2). How do you see these two degrees aligning in relation to your career goals?
Wamweni: These two degrees are very related, which I find to be a great advantage for me and that’s why I dove into the opportunity to do them both. I have a passion for education, and I want to do it more so from the social aspect which is in nonprofit. Nonprofit is such a wide field so you need to pick an area of focus and for me that is education. As far as what particular role or position I’m aiming for, I do not have a specific one. I do have visions of what I want to achieve in my career or impacts I want to make in the places I go to. Something I am big about is advocating for free access to quality education in previously colonized countries. I have had a lot of resources here in the U.S, and I want to make these resources available in developing countries. Kids could achieve so much…their lives would change, their families’ lives could change, and this can benefit future generations.
Leslie: Yes, coming from a developing country myself, I understand how you feel because this is also what motivates me to learn more about ways to get this done. Now to wrap this up, can you tell me how you ended up doing two degrees at UPenn?
Wamweni: My original intention was to apply to the Nonprofit Leadership Program at SP2. I researched the program and on the website, I came across their joint-degree offers. As I was looking through them…all the programs were within the SP2 school, but I was not interested in them because they were not education related programs. As I continued to research… I suddenly see IEDP, and I am like “what is IEDP?.” I click on the link and this takes me to the GSE website. I began reading about it and I was like “wow, this is exactly what I want to do, this is the exact type of master’s degree I was looking for. I just did not know the name.” I found out that if I wanted to do both programs I had to apply to them separately. But this was an answer to my prayers…I could do both of them if I applied to both schools at Penn.
I submitted my GSE application three weeks after my SP2 application. Well. I was crossing my fingers. I did not think I would be accepted at Penn to be honest. Penn was my reach school.
Leslie: And you got accepted to both programs. Two different schools at Penn!
Wamweni: That is a miracle right there! I was hoping that one of the schools at Penn would like me. So here is my advice for people considering applying to Penn. Take the risk. I had low hopes, but I still had hopes and I put those into the application, of course. And I thought…even if there is a small chance of getting in, a one percent chance perhaps… Go for it! Even if you may not have the best grades in undergrad…your work experience, your upbringing, how far you have made it being the strong resilient person you are…there is something about you that can make you stand out and you have to paint that picture to them!