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Lafayette Students Travel to Madagascar for Education Initiative

Caitlin Mitchell, along with nine other students, participated in the LIME program in Madagascar.

March 6, 2012

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John Bolton and Caitlin Mitchell, members of the men's and women's Lafayette lacrosse teams respectively, could have done anything they wanted with their winter break. They could have enjoyed the time off from work and responsibility and salvaged rare opportunities at home-cooked meals and sleep. Instead, they chose rice patties and "the farthest place from home they could possibly be."

Bolton and Mitchell participated in the Lafayette Initiative for Malagasy Education (LIME) where from Dec. 28 through Jan. 16, they traveled to Madagascar to teach Malagasy students at Lycee Andohalo in the Malagasy capital of Antananarivo about applying to American colleges and universities and taking standardized tests such as the SAT.

"The idea for this course got its start in 2007 when Neils Marquardt became US Ambassador to Madagascar, " said Professor David Stifel, faculty advisor for the trip. "Upon his arrival in Madagascar, Ambassador Marquardt was struck by how few Malagasys receive advanced degrees in the United States. This is especially compared to students from other Francophone countries like Cameroon, where he was previously Ambassador. He subsequently sent a letter to college and university presidents in the United States in an appeal to bridge this gap. President Weiss received one such letter."

Professor Stifel had been making frequent travels to Madagascar for research, which gave Lafayette an opportunity to respond to Ambassador Marquardt's request. The first group traveled to Madagascar in January 2010 and designed the LIME program as it is today.

"It's not an average trip. You get the culture experience and get to give back to the kids," Bolton said. "There's not a large opportunity to do that. It's really cool to give back to someone that genuinely wants to come here and study. I've never seen kids more passionate and dedicated when it comes to their academics."

While it is a great opportunity, the travel certainly wasn't easy. The group, made up of five juniors and five seniors all from Lafayette, enjoyed a seven-hour plane ride to Paris followed by an 11-hour ride to Madagascar, taking them to what one Peace Corps volunteer told them was the "farthest place from home they could possibly be."

The group arrived in Antananarivo and stayed in a hotel for most of the time not including excursions to the rainforest and coastal villages. Rice, beans and fruit were the main menu items during their stay, along with Zebu, which they described as a skinnier version of a cow.

With temperatures in the 70s and 80s most days, the group enjoyed a nice change of pace from the winter weather in the Northeastern United States. Since it was monsoon season in Madagascar, the resourceful athletes had to find ways to satisfy their daily workouts and athletic fixes.

Their gym for those three weeks was the pool at the hotel where they swam laps and completed light workouts to stay in shape. Their instruction wasn't limited to test-taking preparation as Bolton and Mitchell had the opportunity to teach the kids how to play lacrosse and learned a few things from the students on the soccer field.

Professor Stifel found it vital to include student-athletes on the trip because they encompass what it means to be part of a team.

"I find that student-athletes internalize the concept of teamwork, which is especially important for the LIME program," Stifel said. "The Lafayette students who participate in LIME are, in every sense of the word, a team. So student-athletes add a solid dimension to the LIME team."

In the classroom, the Malagasy students were taught basic college application tools such as how to use and how to fill out the Common Application. Bolton and Mitchell expressed that most of the kids were very smart and knew what they were doing when it came to answering questions on the SAT once it was explained what the question was asking.

"Working with the students was not the easiest. With English being their third language it made it hard to explain basic ideas, but as we spent more time with the kids we found other ways to communicate," Mitchell said. "By the end of the two weeks it was truly gratifying that the students had understood what we were teaching them."

On the final day of the trip, an assembly was held where it was announced by the head of the school that the LIME students had improved their scores across the board since the beginning of the program.

The future of the LIME program looks very bright as Professor Stifel and his students try to leave a lasting impression with the Malagasy people.

"I am certainly hopeful that we will have a lasting impact, Stifel said." "We are still early in the program to have a good sense of what that impact is. We have our first Malagasy students applying to colleges in the States this year, so we'll be able to say more about the immediate impact in the coming months. Having said that, I do think that the program is helping the students at Lycee Andohalo appreciate the opportunities that are within reach."

While Division I athletics is a full-time, year-round commitment, Lafayette College is still able to provide its student athletes unique opportunities like this once-in-a-lifetime mentoring trip to Madagascar.