The Education of a Lifetime

The Education of a Lifetime

Richard Jenson thought he didn't like traveling. Tanzania changed that.

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

An occasional but quite reluctant traveler, Assoc. Prof. Richard Jenson (Mathematics) came to a momentous decision sitting in church 12 years ago.

"I said to myself, 'When the millennium turns, I want to take my kids on a great vacation they'll always remember,'" recalled Jenson.


Tanzanian schoolchildren enjoy a "slide show" of digital class photos put together by Assoc. Prof. Richard Jenson (Mathematics) during his trip last summer to the East African nation. Jenson spearheaded donations of computer technology and books for schools in Tanzania.
In fact, the trip his family took to Tanzania nine years later was so enjoyable for Jenson, it spurred him to return twice more on his own, most recently this past summer. But rather than tread the tourist's path through the East African nation, Jenson worked with Tanzanian teachers and schoolchildren, bringing them donated computers and books, and serving a variety of roles, including as ad hoc electrical engineer and as tutor to a group of eager 13-year-olds.

Whatever he gave to his hosts, Jenson says he got more than equal return.

"It's changed my life," said Jenson. "The first trip was wonderful, but these last two visits were on a whole other level. To be able to go to Africa, and to be with people on their own terms is an experience like no other: They know you genuinely like and appreciate them for who they are, and they feel the same about you."

Jenson's other experiences during the trip, such as attending a coming-of-age ceremony for several Masai boys and a safari on the Serengeti with a National Geographic photographer, enriched what was already a fulfilling adventure.

"There were any number of things I could no longer take for granted," he said. "I had to think far more about how I was going to find transportation to get where I needed to go, or where I was going to find drinking water. If I was out on my own, I was at considerable risk - there was no guarantee I could be found if something happened.

"Those are the kinds of situations in which you truly begin to see the world in a whole new way, and I'm grateful to have experienced them."

Jenson's connection to Tanzania began through correspondence with the safari company he and his family had used to arrange their visit in 2000. The company representative told Jenson about the primary schools he worked with near Arusha, in the north of Tanzania, and how they were in great need of computers. Jenson discovered that Lexington High School had 23 Macs they no longer needed, then found an additional 10 used computers at a Boston private school.

To ship the computers overseas, Jenson contacted the Friends of Tanzanian Schools Inc., a non-profit organization that coordinates assistance projects for Tanzanian schools and promotes American-Tanzanian educational exchanges - and whose members include former clients of the safari company. Jenson agreed to accompany the equipment and stay for six weeks during the summer of 2002 to help with installation and basic training.

"You can't just hand the computers over and walk away," he said. "You have to invest the people in it and get them involved so they really feel they own the process, instead of creating the idea that 'someone else' will solve everything."

One immediate problem Jenson had to contend with was the erratic electricity supply in Tanzania: "The voltage goes all over the map and goes out unexpectedly. Fortunately, we were able to acquire some equipment that stabilized the voltage."

The two schools receiving the computers were markedly different from one another, Jenson says. One, a private school, was located in a town, with classes taught in English; the other, operated by the government, was in a rural village and conducted in Swahili.

Jenson spent three weeks at each school, forming personal as well as professional friendships with the staff and teachers - the town school headmaster would invite Jenson to his home to watch TV coverage of the World Cup and enjoy home-cooked meals.

Hoping to return to Tanzania, Jenson hit on the idea of donating used textbooks to the schools. When he learned that a Newton private school had changed its mathematics curriculum, he arranged to collect the discarded books and brought the first shipment to Tanzania this past summer.

The computer donation project had achieved mixed results, Jenson learned. While the town school had hired a computer teacher and its students were receiving about 30 minutes of computer instruction per week, he says, the village school had been unable to fully utilize the computers.

"Unfortunately, you cannot expect everything to have a completely happy ending, at least not right away," said Jenson. "This is a poor country, and there are limited resources for education, so getting a permanent teacher for computer instruction is very difficult. At least the computers are there - it's a start."

Jenson said two graduates of Princeton University will be working with the school for several months, and with their help school administrators hope to make more use of the computer equipment.

Jenson volunteered to teach at a second rural school during this past summer's visit to Tanzania, riding an overcrowded bus each morning to offer instruction in mathematics. If the journey was arduous, the bond he formed with his 13-year-old charges more than made up for it.

"These kids were actually on their vacation, but they would come to hear me speak about math in English, through a Swahili translator," he said. "They'd show up around at 8 a.m. and berate me if I was late getting there."

Some of Jenson's teaching methods were quite unconventional by Tanzanian standards. He took a photo of each student to help him memorize their names - Tanzanian teachers, he said, rarely call students by their names - and, using his laptop computer, put together a digital slide show for the class.

Jenson says he hopes others at Boston College might be encouraged to give of their time in a similar vein. "You can practically walk into a school with no prior arrangement, and just say you want to help, whether it's teaching English, leading a drama class, or doing gym. The need for volunteers is so great there."

 

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