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For Many Girls Globally, U.S. a Symbol of Better Education

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UCR Professor: Greater representation of high-achieving women transcends into a “beacon” for girls everywhere

By Corey Arvin
Staff Writer

When news about the abduction of 276 schoolgirls reached Simi Ogunleye, she was heartbroken and outraged not only because of the ordeal, but that the Nigerian officials were not as responsive as they could have been, she said. The story hits home for Ogunleye, a Nigerian student attending University of California, Riverside (UCR) whose parents immigrated to the U.S. when she was 5-years-old largely in part to augment her chances of receiving a quality education.

“I was upset with President Jonathan Goodluck and the government, as well as with his wife's reaction,” she said.

Ogunleye’s father is an engineer and her mother is a local high school and college educator who emphasized the important of her education. In solidarity and support of the kidnapped victims, Ogunleye, who is vice president of the Nigerian Student Association at UCR, held a rally and town hall discussion on campus this month.

“It's sad because [Nigeria] has the potential to be great with its resources and educated population, but it is corruption and greed that is halting the process. It’s also sad to see it dwindle because of conflict with tribes and with the government.”

Nigeria’s crisis garnered national headlines weeks into the mass kidnapping with the schoolgirls still missing. It also broadcasted an image that gives the international community an “incorrect perception” of Nigeria that does not totally reflect the civility and vitality of the country, said Ogunleye.

“That's why so many Nigerians are so eager to move to more advanced nations. Just the fact that I can go to school [without conflict] I am grateful, yet in parts of Nigeria, sometimes they cannot go to school. They are scared they will be shot or killed. Nigerians put emphasis on education for women and men, it is something that they crave,” she said.

Ogunleye decried the militant extremist attempts of Boko Haram to stymie young girls’ desires to receive an education and considered the kidnapping a disruption to the advancement of Nigeria.

“To the girls, I would say ‘don't give up’. Education is power. That is all they can do to make Nigeria better, so don't give up.”

Young girls striving for education in the U.S. and developing countries live in contrasting environments that shape their access to education and quality learning. These differences can vary, but for girls pursuing an education everywhere, role models are a necessity, said Pamela Clute, PhD, professor of Mathematics at UCR. Clute believes no matter their circumstances, girls and young women still require examples of successful and accomplished women to achieve their academic goals. Clute, who founded the Girls Excelling in Mathematics for Success (GEMS) summer program, is a long-time advocate of advancing the education of young girls and women. Clute was also an honored recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring from the White House and also honor from the National Science Foundation for her dedication to math education. “The power of a role model, if they are a good one, is they can give you faith in yourself. They can navigate the system for you. When girls don't have strong parents, they don't have someone showing what they can do and how they can get to where they want to be,” said Clute.

According to Clute, basic and advanced education must be addressed and it begins in childhood. Clute pointed to math, for example, as one subject girls are not enthusiastic about learning. She stressed the importance of personalizing education with girls to instill the necessary confidence for success.

“California has the highest poverty rate of the U.S. and many are women of color. In the 21st century, it is education that has to be a priority,” she said.

Clute acknowledged that domestically, even though girls may be contending with access to quality education there are resources available and examples of successful women. It is one of the reasons girls in developing countries admire the U.S., she said.

“The U.S. is a beacon, even with all of our problems,” said Clute.

Upon learning about the abductions in Nigeria, Clute called the mass kidnappings a “horrific” tragedy that sends the wrong message about educating girls.

“If you look globally, for women to gain equality, they have to have a better education. And I think when you look to the U.S., yes, there are great role models to get other women in the pipeline of learning.”

Clute said examples of women achieving success in other countries could help girls excel in education.

The mass kidnapping in Nigeria also highlighted young girls’ struggles with access to education and disconcerting attitudes about the education of women. A social media campaign shared by activists, celebrities, and public figures spurred attention to the plight of Nigerian girls.

Christina M. Gray, PhD, assistant director of programs for the School of International Relations at University of Southern California (USC), says although the #BringOurGirlsBack campaign was moving, it is unclear if it will have any longevity with sustaining attention on issues affecting African girls. Gray believes the education of girls in underdeveloped countries can be a complex issue to address.

“The education of girls is one of the best investments we can make,” she said.

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