On Oct. 2, 1992, with his brother on his shoulder and mother and sister close behind, Umaru Jalloh ran for his life as grenades exploded and bullets screeched by his head. Twenty-two years later, Jalloh, a 42-year-old Sierra Leonean refugee who has endured personal tragedies such as homelessness and triumphs such as being named to the Dean’s List, graduated from Columbia University School of General Studies on May 19, 2014.
Jalloh—the first person in his family to graduate elementary school—could not be more thrilled to earn his BA in anthropology.
“I am dedicating my degree not only to my sister, who was forced to drop out of school in second grade because she is female, but also to my brother who also was forced to drop out because of a disability. I am indebted not only to them, but to girls and children with disabilities with marginal circumstances everywhere,” Jalloh said.
Education is not only Jalloh’s personal mission, but it was also his pathway to the United States in 2002. As a political refugee in one of the largest refugee camps in Guinea, he learned from a United Nations field worker of a teacher shortage for English-speaking refugee children in the Guinean capital, Conakry. It was there that he met Lisa Gimbel, an American who was volunteering at the school, and who eventually encouraged Jollah to come to the United States to work as a camp counselor in Wading River, N.Y.
“After working at Camp Wolfson and learning new skills from program mangement and wilderness survival, my desire to be a college-educated, certified teacher was even stronger, and in the fall of 2006, I enrolled at Suffolk Community College (SCCC)—17 years after graduating from high school. I felt reborn,” Jalloh said.
At SCCC, Jollah was a straight-A student and the president of the Phi Theta Honor Society, an international honor society of two-year colleges and academic programs. His success at SCCC led him to apply to Columbia University School of General Studies for the spring of 2010.
“When I enrolled at Columbia University, I struggled not only with health issues, but also homelessness. The School of General Studies, however, supported me through these tough times with tuition, housing, and medical assistance. I’ve made life-long friendships; I always felt welcome; and I could not be prouder to be a GS alumnus and a member of the Columbia community,” Jollah said.
After graduation, Jollah would like to study the history of technology through a joint program at the University of Pennsylvania and the Franklin Institute Museum where he serves as a science fair volunteer. He has also initiated plans to open an inclusive school in rural Sierra Leone called Fairplay Academy to ensure all students receive a quality education.