Last year we gave this girl the best birthday present. EVER!

Head and shoulders image of Sierra Leonean girl, aged around 18, wearing yellow and green patterned v-neck dress and white and blue head scarf

Mariama’s grandmother cries every morning. She has five children living with her – and they all have to get by on the money that comes from selling oranges and donuts. It’s hard. Really hard. Most of the time there isn’t even enough money for food, let alone any ‘luxuries’.

Mariama had been a bright, young student but with no money for the tuition fees, she was forced to drop out of school. She kept dreaming that someday there’d be enough money to get her back into the classroom – but there never was. So Mariama had become another of the countless girls around the world whose talent and enthusiasm for learning would go to waste.

But today, that’s not the reason behind her grandmother’s tears.

Although day-to-day life remains difficult, she’s actually crying tears of joy. She cries each morning because she still can’t believe her granddaughter is in college. Against impossible odds, Mariama not only made it back to secondary school – but she’s now in university!

So what happened?

Chances are you know enough about One Girl to know that Mariama – a bright student full of potential but forced out of school due to financial hardship – is exactly the kind of girl we support through our scholarship programs. As soon as our team in Sierra Leone met with her, they knew she belonged in school and made sure that happened as quickly as possible. Her dream – an impossible dream for many – had come true! And as soon as she was back in school she thrived.

With all the challenges our scholarship girls face, it can be incredibly difficult to excel at school. It’s not that they aren’t motivated or smart or hardworking. They’re all those things. It’s just that on so many levels, life in Sierra Leone is tough. Just attending school, getting homework done and passing exams each year is an incredible achievement. But Mariama didn’t just get through – she excelled. She passed with enough credits to guarantee a place in university. She’s not the first of our graduates to do so – but her results were so good that we simply couldn’t ignore them.

And that’s why Mariama is the first ever high school graduate that One Girl has continued to support into tertiary education, our first University Scholar.

Up until now we’ve concentrated all our efforts on helping as many girls as possible get back to school. University fees are significantly more expense than school fees, so we have chosen to fund as many girls as possible through secondary school – rather than fewer girls through university.

But with Mariama we made an exception. And in late November last year – on Mariama’s birthday no less – we paid her first year’s university fees. Best. Birthday. Present. Ever!

Some of our team had a chance to catch up with Mariama when they visited Sierra Leone. It was incredible to hear her describe how happy she – and her grandmother are.

“Are you really going to college?” her grandmother keeps asking her, because even now she can barely believe it.

Even Mariama shed happy tears on the day she started her course. She’s studying Human Resources Management, and as is so often the case with the girls we support, sees her own education in terms of how it will benefit others.

“I want to help others to get a job and gain skills to deal with people in the workplace. This is a way of giving back to others.”

It was also sobering to hear her explain why education is so important for girls.

“It is important to educate girls so they can defend themselves against abuse from men. Men need to see that women are not slaves that they can abuse, and when women are educated men treat them better.”

So often we think about education in terms of job opportunities and the flow-on effects of a steady income. But it’s way, way more than that. Especially for girls. On top of the precious knowledge and skills they learn, there’s the self-respect they develop, the respect others show them and the way that respect completely changes expectations and outcomes in their own lives – and the lives of their families and communities.

Head and shoulders image of Sierra Leonean girl around 18 years old, against red wall

Mariama will be one of a tiny percentage of university-educated women in Sierra Leone. As a result she’ll automatically be elevated to the role of leader in her community, where she’ll no doubt become a role model and impact the lives of many others. She’ll achieve her goal of becoming “a great woman with great knowledge”.

But even before she earns her degree, she’s already a trailblazer. Our scholarship girls who complete their secondary school studies become role models for those in their community. Those around them – old and young, male and female – see these young women learning, succeeding and challenging the traditional stereotype that they have no value beyond domestic drudgery, marriage and child-rearing.

Our Alumni program will continue to expand to ensure all of our graduates and past scholars have the support they need – like access to small financial grants or more training or simply a network to share their journey. So much lies ahead for them. We’ll keep you posted!

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