Reading to dream

Merretta Dickinson found her true passion thousands of miles from home, working with school children in Namibia.

-“I discovered that I have a passion for helping others, one stronger than I had thought,” she says, recalling her work in an after-school program at the Bernhard Nordkamp Center in Katutura. “This work made me less materialistic than I had ever been, extremely grateful for the opportunities that I have been given by my parents, country and Wheaton, and made me realize that I really do want to devote my life to making a difference for people.”

The junior has been awarded a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant to establish a sustainable tutoring program that will change lives by helping students with mild learning differences learn to read fluently. In ten weeks, she plans to start tutoring programs in two nearby schools, set up a training program for volunteer tutors and hold workshops for the schools’ teachers.

In its fifth year, Davis Projects for Peace, is an invitation to undergraduates at the American colleges and universities in the Davis United World College Scholars Program to design grassroots projects that promote peace. It¬†is made possible by Kathryn Wasserman Davis, an accomplished internationalist and philanthropist who received an honorary degree from Wheaton in 2008. She is the mother of Diana Davis Spencer ’60, a writer, activist and a trustee emerita of the college.

Dickinson’s peace project continues work that she took on last summer as a volunteer at the nonprofit organization, which is located just north of the country’s capital, Windhoek.

“For three months in the summer of 2010, I worked with two American special education teachers at the BNC to develop a successful after-school tutoring program,” says the Bowdoin, Maine, native, who received one of Wheaton’s Davis International Fellows grants to travel to the West African nation.

Through her interactions with students, Dickinson realized that a number of the children not only faced economic hardships but also had learning differences, such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder, with which the schools were not equipped to deal.

“While discussing my ideas with principals, teachers and NGO workers, we all realized that Katutura schools could provide this attention if I were able to invest the time and resources to develop a sustainable program,” she says.

“The BNC teachers taught me many games, techniques and tips that I will use in the tutoring program I am proposing,” Dickinson says. Since then, she has researched a host of additional strategies to further enrich her efforts and those of the volunteers who will be recruited to continue the program. She plans to use much of the grant to purchase laptops, software, books and games to be used by the volunteers and their students.

A double major in anthropology and classics (Greek and Latin) with a minor in women’s studies, Dickinson plans to focus her senior thesis on education in Namibia, and she views her work as an outgrowth of her scholarly interest in inequality, its causes and violence within societies. She credits the Research Methods class she took during her sophomore year as clarifying her interest in the subject through work that she did a local women’s shelter. Her future goal is to earn a law degree and work for human rights.

“I am driven to work with the children in Katutura because I believe that education is the key to success and to a more peaceful world tomorrow,” Dickinson wrote in her project description. “These children strive not for abstract notions of world peace, but rather for a peace of mind: knowing that they can access and achieve a higher level of education, that they will have more opportunity in life, and that they will have the tools necessary to break out of the cycle of poverty.¬†Children with learning disabilities in Namibian public schools now have little hope.

“My Project for Peace will bring opportunity and help some of the dreams of these children become reality. This is not only about individual successes, but also about improving the quality of life for the community in Katutura.”