Scholars Absorbed Culture of Madagascar

Acute poverty is a daily reality in Madagascar. But Ursinus sophomores, Liam Marston and Madeline McEvily say after five weeks in the small African country, they left with a sense of deep inspiration. As Bonner Leaders, they, along with senior, Amanda Finch, lived and worked this summer in Toliara, one of the poorest areas of Madagascar.

Their time was divided between teaching English and researching ways in which the country could improve its tourism economy. Finch 2011 led the Madagascar project, focusing on ESL (English as a Second Language) and guiding Marston and McEvily in teaching practices.  Christian Rice, Assistant Dean for Civic Engagement and Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion (Visiting) at Ursinus, accompanied the students on the first half of their visit.

In Madagascar, Finch says she learned “how beautifully” a community can work together.  “We were accepted into an economically poor community which was warm, welcoming and full of rich relationships,” says Finch. “I was immersed in poverty, laughter, music, language differences, exotic foods, different sounds, smells, foliage and animals. I was challenged to develop a curriculum to teach English and to live completely outside of my comfort zone. In Madagascar, I discovered my values, beliefs and who I am as a person.”

Marston says he gained a humbleness and appreciation for his own circumstances. “The experience helped to renew my drive to follow my dream of working in international development,” he says. “The people were so poor, but so inclusive and generous. They showed me the best community I have ever been a part of,” says Marston, a business major from Needham, Massachusetts.

Five weeks, and a world away, from home was a life changing experience, says McEvily, 19. “I knew going into the trip that as one of the poorest countries in the world, we were going to poverty that is unheard of in the United States. No matter how much you prepare for a trip like this, there is no way that you can be completely ready,” says McEvily, a business major from Interlaken, New Jersey.

But, she says, she was most stirred by the happiness of the people they met.  “The people were so kind,” she says. “The way of life and set of values was so different from things we see in the United States.”

Although much of their time was spent teaching in Toliara, they did have the chance to explore the natural beauty of the country. They got within touching distance of Madagascar’s famous lemurs. During a trip to Isalo, a national park, the students visited a resort and examined ways in which workers there were supported through education.

Throughout their stay, the Ursinus students lived with Ursinus alumna, The Rev. Patricia McGregor and her husband, The Rt. Rev. Dr. Todd McGregor. The McGregors have lived in Madagascar since 1991, with a five-year hiatus in Kenya, says Patsy McGregor. In 1999, they welcomed three Ursinus students who taught English at a local school.

More about Bonner Leaders: Bonner Leaders at Ursinus are expected to complete 10 hours of community service per week during each semester. The Bonner Foundation is a national philanthropic organization based in Princeton, New Jersey and founded by Bertram F. Bonner and his wife, Corella Allen Bonner.

McEvily volunteers at a non-profit called Partners for Families in Norristown. “Their goal is to use their facilities to bring the Norristown community together through programs and workshops,” says McEvily. “They act as the coordinator for all other non-profits in the area to bring the resources together to help the people of Norristown.”

Marston coordinates two local service programs. In his work for Francisvale Home for Smaller Animals, he takes students every weekend to help out with the dogs and cats at the shelter. At ACLAMO, an after-school program in Norristown, Marston brings students to tutor the children there with homework and other lessons.

The mission of the Bonner Scholars and Bonner Leaders Programs is to transform the lives of students and members, the life of their campuses, their local communities, and the world through service and leadership. The Bonner Program is designed to heighten the overall education students and members receive by asking them to engage in ongoing service work and helping them develop the experience, skills, knowledge and values necessary to make that work meaningful and lasting.

-KC