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LMC students, faculty travel to Sierra Leone as part of Project 1808

Sue Balmes met Alhaji N’jai in Kalamazoo.  

Balmes, who recently completed her 20th year as Biology faculty at Lake Michigan College, was working on her doctorate at Western Michigan University. N'jai had landed at Kalamazoo College on a foreign student exchange scholarship to finish his bachelor’s degree while a brutal civil war was raging in his home country of Sierra Leone. The two met when N’jai transferred to Western.  

"We were in graduate school together and stayed in contact," Balmes said. "Living here, he was always looking for ways to help his community in Sierra Leone. He wanted to create a sustainable community where children could stay, work, and make the community a better place. I asked how I could help, and that's how I got involved." 

N'jai founded Project 1808, a nonprofit organization promoting sustainable community development through education in Kabala, Koinadugu District, Sierra Leone, where he has returned to live. He started with 56 students in 2011. Today, more than 1,000 students are provided educational support and enrichment training in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and leadership. 

Balmes, who spent three months on sabbatical in Sierra Leone before the COVID-19 pandemic forced an early return in 2020, has been among the project's staunchest advocates. 

"When I was there, I helped in the local schools and really got to know the community," she said. "After my sabbatical, I only became more involved. I became a board member, and we started a Project 1808 club here at LMC to get our students involved." 

In January, Balmes, along with LMC Social Sciences, Humanities, and Education Department Chair Amy Scrima, Part-Time Sociology Instructor Myrna McNitt, English Instructor Nicholas Brittin and his wife, Sarah, LMC students Athena Lieu, Emma Perez, and Arianna DeGroot, Kalamazoo Valley Community College Vice President and Provost Paige Eagan, and geneticist Theresa Scocca, traveled to Sierra Leone to take part in Project 1808's National Science and Leadership Festival.  

The community festival, held annually in Kabala, one of the poorest towns in one of the poorest countries in the world, offers students a mixture of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, along with ideas promoting leadership, entrepreneurship, and innovation.  

"When Sue told me about the opportunity to collaborate on and support her and Dr. Alhaji N'jai's work in Sierra Leone, I couldn't say no," Scrima said. "Giving students the ability to see themselves as global citizens empowers them to see the bigger picture and how education can transform lives." 

LMC students and faculty were facilitators at various education stations throughout the festival, teaching everything from biology and chemistry to information technology and human rights issues. Sessions promoting food security, climate resilience, and combating substance abuse were taught alongside academic activities, music, storytelling, and cultural performances.  

"I'll forever remember being led by the community's children into their schools so they could show me how dedicated they are to learning," Brittin said. "On the last day of the festival, I was even able to record the Griot (members of the Krio community who retain their cultural knowledge) as they performed traditional songs and dances. I think the experiences I had and continue to have with them have made me a better educator." 

The event drew over 1,000 participants, with more than 300 staff, volunteers, and facilitators from Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Jamaica, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. 

"The experience is transforming for anyone fortunate to be part of this journey," Balmes said. "The opportunity to participate in festivities highlighting academics, arts, leadership, and Indigenous culture was fabulously rewarding. What I did not expect was how much I brought back home that impacted my teaching and my worldview." 

"Working in Sierra Leone is humbling," McNitt added. "But I think it has better prepared me to help my students become global citizens and open doors for more student travel." 

With the nearest college more than 5 hours away in the capital of Freetown, Project 1808 has been raising funds to support a college in Kabala. Koinadugu College, a three-room higher education space with an adjacent technical center, launched its undergraduate degree program in 2023. It has now been accredited by the Tertiary Education Committee (TEC) and National College Technical Vocational Association (NCTVA) boards. 

LMC and Koinadugu College recently signed a memorandum of understanding to encourage more student and faculty exchanges. 

"The creation of Koinadugu College has the potential to transform that region, and our partnership with them has the potential to transform our students here at LMC as well," Scrima said. "I have spent my career connecting students to opportunities that enable them to look beyond their current circumstances and make a better life for themselves and their communities. The student arm of this initiative is a perfect example of such an opportunity as it enables students from both colleges to support and interact with one another." 

Following the trip to Kabala, Brittin joined Balmes on Koinadugu College's board of directors. 

"It was an inspiration to visit Koinadugu College this year," he said. "It's a beautiful community, and the students have an enthusiasm for learning that continues to inspire me. Since returning, they honored me with a position on their board, and we're now looking forward to using the newest developments in artificial intelligence to develop the college and retain their native culture and languages."   

Although Balmes officially retires from LMC on Aug. 1, her involvement in education and Project 1808 will continue long past her tenure.  

"What are my retirement plans?" she said, smiling. "Well, I expect to do some more traveling." 

Project 1808

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