Living in Nigeria, Margee Ensign witnessed the plight of jobless, hopeless youth who were vulnerable to the calls of Boko Haram to join its terrorist ranks.
“If you’re not educated, you can be easily manipulated. If you can’t imagine your life is going to get better,” then you’re more at risk, the American educator says. The extremists “do provide some purpose, even though it’s an evil purpose.”
For seven years Ensign was president of the American University of Nigeria, the first Western-style university in sub-Saharan Africa. (Today she is president of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.)
The American University in Nigeria was founded by Atiku Abubakar, a businessman, philanthropist and then-vice president of Nigeria, who believed such an institution was best suited to producing leaders to solve Nigeria’s social and economic problems.
“Education can change everything.” ~Margee Ensign
In Nigeria, Ensign worked in Yola, capital of Nigeria’s volatile Adamawa state, which was flooded with 300,000 refugees fleeing Boko Haram’s terror.
She worked with Christian and Muslim leaders in the Adamawa Peace Initiative, which utilized humanitarian organizations to feed the refugees. The organizations continue to teach young people to read and write. They train them to master tech skills. And they bring them together to play sports.
“We reached tens of thousands of kids and can document that not one joined Boko Haram,” says Ensign, a specialist in African development.
Ensign has ventured with her security chief into hostile territory to bring back girls who escaped when the Islamist terrorists kidnapped 276 Chibok schoolgirls in April 2014. Two dozen began remedial classes and several are working toward university degrees. (Smithsonian Magazine tells the dramatic story.)
Some 100 of the Chibok girls who have been freed now are in Yola resuming their education. The government is paying for their instruction at the university.
Growing up in California, Ensign traveled the world from an early age with her parents, pioneers of the airline industry. “I saw different cultures, different languages, different ways of organizing [societies],” she says.
“I was always trying to find connections between teaching and scholarship and problem-solving. For me, applying the knowledge we learn is absolutely critical.”
At Dickinson, the first college chartered in the United States after the American Revolution, she’s equally determined to connect the campus with the world. Dickinson is fertile ground for engagement. Flags of the world line its pathways, 60 percent of its students study abroad, and one in 10 of its students is international.
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