Once captives of Boko Haram, these students are finding new meaning in their lives in Pennsylvania

Of all the challenges faced by people who’ve been displaced, perhaps none is more important than to find new meaning in their lives. And so it is with the four young women who are students in a college prep class that I teach at Dickinson College.

All four students were among the more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls who were abducted by Boko Haram in April 2014. The kidnapping triggered international outrage and prompted the worldwide #BringBackOurGirls campaign.

As we approach the five-year anniversary of the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls – many of whom are still being held captive – it is worth taking a look at what the world has done to help those who have survived the ordeal. The Nigerian government has secured the release of less than half of the kidnapped schoolgirls, with at least 100 still being held captive.

The class I teach at Dickinson offers a small glimpse into the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls’ lives. It is an outcome that their captors in Boko Haram – a terrorist group whose name means “Western education is forbidden” – never wanted to imagine.

Over the past year or so, the four students I teach have worked hard to achieve their dream of obtaining a high school equivalency diploma so they can have a shot at college. They have attempted the GED practice test and real tests quite a few times.

Assessors said it would take about five to seven years to get them ready for college. However, something took place in February that leads me to believe it won’t take that long. But before I tell that story, a little background is in order.

Escaping captivity

While the Chibok school kidnapping is widely associated with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, fortunately, my students never had to be “brought back.” That’s because they were among the lucky ones who escaped from the insurgent group as they were being taken to the Sambisa Forest in Nigeria.

#BringBackOurGirls campaigners protest in Lagos, Nigeria in 2017. Sunday Alamba/AP
How the four young women came to be my students at a small, historic, private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania is a long and complicated story. Not all of it has been pleasant. The Wall Street Journal told much of their rough ordeal in the United States in 2018.

That same year, Dickinson College president Margee Ensign was asked and agreed to welcome the young women to our campus. She had done the same a few years earlier with some of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls when she was head of the American University of Nigeria, where I also used to teach.

The students are all on full scholarship funded by the Nigerian government’s Victim Support Fund and the Murtala Mohammed Foundation.

Journey to the United States

I came to Dickinson College in the fall of 2017 as a visiting professor in international studies. I first met the four former Chibok schoolgirls in April 2018, when Dickinson launched the College Bridge program in which they are now enrolled.

Through the program, the young women take a college prep class with me that focuses on critical and analytical thinking skills. They also take math, English, science, social studies and GED preparatory classes.

A global mission, challenging work

In many ways, the bridge program at Dickinson is in line with UNESCO’s new #RightToEducation campaign that is meant to expand access to higher education for refugees. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, among the world’s 16.1 million refugees, only 1 percent of college-aged refugees attend university, compared to 34 percent of all college-aged youth globally.

Released abduction victims, schoolgirls from the Government Girls Science and Technical College Dapchi, shown after a meeting with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, at the presidential palace in Abuja, Nigeria. Azeez Akunleyan/AP
The work of preparing students with refugee backgrounds for college is far from easy. Aside from adjusting to a new culture and environment, sometimes a new language and a different method of learning, displaced persons struggle to find new meanings in their displacement. When education becomes their main pursuit, it must necessarily provide those new meanings.

A breakthrough

For a student named Patience, new meaning has been found in her quest to become a schoolteacher or counselor. Patience has taken a significant step toward that goal. It came to light when she showed up over an hour late to my class one day in February.