Alumna’s Mission: Making Global Educational Dreams a Reality

Ashleigh DeLuca, BA ’13, helped impoverished Gambian children graduate from high school. But she’s not stopping there. Her next goal is to bring them to the U.S. for college.

Ashleigh DeLuca, BA ’13, taught sixth grade English to students in The Gambia.
Ashleigh DeLuca, BA ’13, taught sixth grade English to students in The Gambia.
May 09, 2018

Before coming to GW, Ashleigh DeLuca, BA ’13, took a gap year and traveled to The Gambia in West Africa. Only 17, she volunteered as a sixth grade English teacher in Mukumbaya, an impoverished rural village without running water or electricity. But the conditions were more dire than she imagined, with many children dropping out to support their families—most of whom were struggling to pay the school’s annual $100 tuition and fees.

“There was one family who only ate plain white rice for a week in order to save enough money for their child’s school fees,” DeLuca said. “The challenges to stay in school are enormous.”

DeLuca decided she would do everything she could to help a group of particularly dedicated students stay in school until they graduated. Before leaving Mukumbaya, she approached the village leader about an idea she had to pair American sponsors with students to pay their annual school fees. Tentative arrangements were made and, after returning home and locating the necessary donors, the Starling Sponsorship Program was launched during her first year at Columbian College.

In the ensuing years, DeLuca stayed in contact with the students, first through the village leader and later through email as the children grew old enough to travel to an internet café. While many of the original group of 18 eventually had to drop out of school, three of the students—Adama Jarju, his twin sister Awa and their friend Penda Jallow—graduated from high school.

A New Mission

But DeLuca is not stopping there. Now she is on a mission to help the three Gambian youths—all of whom have expressed an interest in attending college in the United States—take the next steps in their education.  

“It’s unacceptable to me to think that they’ve gotten this close—within a hair’s breadth—and the only thing holding them back isn’t that they aren’t smart enough but that they don’t have enough money,” she said. “I refuse to give up on them.”

DeLuca was able to raise enough money to fund the SAT and application fees, and all three of the students were accepted and hope to enroll in St. Thomas Aquinas College in New York this fall. Partial college scholarships will cover half their tuition, but DeLuca still needs to raise about $270,000 to help the remaining costs. Through fundraising events, a new website and a GoFundMe page, she has raised $7,000 to date, most of which has come from the donors who originally sponsored the students.

The challenge is enormous, said DeLuca, who is now a D.C. media producer, but she continues to be inspired by Awa, Adama and Penda, each of whom hopes to use their education to improve conditions in their homeland.

DeLuca’s former students (from left) Adama Jarju, Penda Jallow and Awa Jarju earned their high school diplomas and are now trying to attend college in the U.SDeLuca’s former students (from left) Adama Jarju, Penda Jallow and Awa Jarju earned their high school diplomas and are now trying to attend college in the U.S

“I want to show . . . the Gambian women that [we] can be so much more than just wives and mothers: [we] can help change our country," Awa wrote on the project's website. She plans to study business and open a chain of hotels throughout her country. Adama is determined to earn a computer science degree and expand internet access to his nation’s poor. “I want to dedicate my studies at school so that I can become a cyber-superhero for the Gambia,” he wrote. “I may not be able to save the world, but I can try to help families like my own rise above poverty and make better lives for themselves.”

And Penda wants to study health and business in college, hoping to become a nurse and transform rural health care in The Gambia with better facilities, better access to life-saving medicine and a fleet of clinics on wheels to tend to patients in the countryside. “I will bring my college education back to the Gambia to make sure that children…can survive childhood illnesses and grow up to be successful adults who can also help our country,” she wrote. In her native language, Mandinka, Penda wrote: "Dunya munov maccoro"—"the world is about helping one another." For DeLuca, that means doing everything possible to give Penda a chance to make a difference.