Dickinson College Launches Bridge Program

Dickinson Archway

Photo by Carl Socolow '77

Four Women Who Escaped Boko Haram are the First Students Enrolled in the Program

by Christine Baksi

Continuing a remarkable journey that began with a kidnapping by Boko Haram terrorists in a remote part of northeast Nigeria, four young women arrived recently to begin their studies at Dickinson College, President Margee Ensign announced.

The students are here as part of a new college-preparation initiative at Dickinson that seeks to provide educational opportunity to young people from regions of the world experiencing conflict and natural disasters—and for whom higher education would otherwise be impossible.

These young women were among a group who escaped April 14, 2014, when members of the Boko Haram terrorist group entered their village of Chibok. More than 270 young women, most of whom attended school there, were kidnapped. Some of the women have died in captivity, while others were released after protracted negotiations between the government and the kidnappers. According to reports, 112 are still missing and intensely sought by the Nigerian government, aided by other countries, including the United States. The women’s plight has been followed by people around the world who will long remember them as the “Chibok Girls” and by the #bringbackourgirls social media movement.

Dickinson, founded by a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, and the first college in the U.S. created after the Revolutionary War, is known for its leadership in global education. Currently, Dickinson enrolls 295 international students from 44 countries.

The arrival of these four students to campus is not Ensign’s first encounter with young women from Chibok. Shortly after the kidnapping, Ensign, who was then president of the American University of Nigeria (AUN), located in Yola, Adamawa state in northwest Nigeria, took a daring ride with the head of AUN safety and security to Chibok. There the two rescued 11 young women who had escaped from Boko Haram, a terrorist group that has killed thousands of people, looted towns and destroyed schools. Among its members’ tactics is dispatching young female suicide bombers to blow themselves up in crowded public spaces. Loosely translated, Boko Haram means “western education is a sin.”

After receiving their parents’ permission, Ensign brought the young women to AUN, where they enrolled in college prep courses especially designed for them and received psychological counseling and support. Full tuition until graduation was provided by an American philanthropist.

“These young women had very limited prospects where they lived,” said Ensign, “but soon a number of them will graduate with bachelor’s degrees, returning to their village to help others and eventually become doctors, lawyers and other professionals so desperately needed there.”

A second group of more than 100 women, recently released by Boko Haram, is now attending AUN, supported by the Nigerian government.

The four new students at Dickinson had been attending Bronx Community College of the City University of New York before coming to Dickinson. The women, whose education at Dickinson is funded by the Murtala Muhammed Foundation and the Nigerian government’s Victim Support Fund, have been placed in a special college prep program until they are ready for college-level work. “They are incredibly motivated and hardworking,” Ensign said.

"The right to an excellent education should be that of every Nigerian child and I am confident that a Dickinson education will prepare the young ladies to take their rightful place in the world," said Aisha Muhammed-Oyebode, CEO of the Murtala Muhammed Foundation.

Ensign said the young women have been warmly welcomed. “Their presence here will be a source of enrichment for other students,” she said. “Everyone is so excited to welcome them here, to learn from them, and to help them succeed.”

“We hope to expand this program to more young people from other parts of the world,” Ensign said. “After graduation, I hope these women return to their countries to engage in conflict resolution, peace building, women’s empowerment, education and economic development. Defeating terrorism through military means is by itself an insufficient, unobtainable solution. People need education, opportunity and hope—and that’s what we are providing.”   

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Published May 18, 2018