LEWISTON — “Global Goals — Local Leaders” was the theme of a celebration of United Nations Day at Bates College where four Maine education leaders were honored Saturday afternoon.
Talks by the honorees focused on several approaches to bringing quality education to everyone in Maine.
They spoke on personal experiences ranging from work with immigrants and refugees to programs that help teen parents continue their education.
Claude Rwaganje, executive director of Community Financial Literacy of Portland, related his personal story of surmounting language barriers when he immigrated to the United States in 1996 from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Rwaganje recalled his confusion. “It was a mystery to me,” he said, when he was first asked whether he wanted to participate in a 401(k) retirement plan.
Financial matters can be a major challenge for newcomers to this country who have a limited knowledge of English, Rwaganje said.
He said another lesson learned the hard way was the responsibility of a co-signer. He was asked to be a co-signer for a first car purchase by a friend. Just a simple signature was all that was needed, or so he thought. When payments were not made on the loan, he discovered that he was responsible for paying it off as a result of agreeing to co-sign.
“It was the same for other refugees, and I decided to help,” Rwaganje said. His work for Community Financial Literacy provides education and counseling of refugee and immigrant communities to build financial stability.
That program has served more than 3,000 people in Maine, he said.
“We are all fighting for the American dream,” Rwaganje. “My passion for this work is endless.”
Ekhlas Ahmed, who is the “Make it Happen” site coordinator for Portland’s public schools, also had a story of immigration and challenges in a new country. At the age of 11, her family moved to Egypt from Sudan, and in 2006 she was entering a high school in the United States with no knowledge of English.
She told of how she “developed a voice, all because my teacher had hope and believed in me,” and she continues with efforts to help immigrants, “especially women,” learn English.
The needs of immigrant families are well-known to Kristie Clark, principal of Longley Elementary School in Lewiston.
She has been a teacher and school administrator for 20 years. She said her early experiences as a second-grade teacher “empowered me to reach out more and more.”
About 70 percent of the 400 Longley School students from pre-kindergarten to sixth grade are English language learners, Clark said. About 125 of them have been in the United States two years or fewer. Eight languages are spoken among the pupils at Longley School, she said.
“We have high expectations” for every child entering the school, Clark said. “We don’t expect that new students here for only a year or so will know how a school works,” so a lot of contact with families is required.
“We teach that they can use what they know,” she said.
Martha Kempe, head of schools at Wayfinder Schools in Camden, emphasized the need to accommodate “nontraditional learners.”
Wayfinder Schools is Maine’s oldest alternative high school. She described the schools’ “Passages” program for young parents.
“You can’t separate the student from what’s inside,” Kempe said. “We meet them wherever they are.”
Kempe said, “Too often the student is not allowed to be wrong.”
Each speaker was honored for work related to a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal, “Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education.”
Kate Dodson, a Bates College graduate who is vice president for global health at the United Nations Foundation in Washington, D.C., delivered the keynote address. She emphasized the continued importance of the U.N. in a world filled with threats.
Darby Ray, director of the Harward Center at Bates College, opened the program and Peter Cole, a board member of the Maine Chapter of the United Nations Association of the USA, introduced the speakers.
The program, which took place at the Olin Arts Center, Bates College, was sponsored by the United Nations Association of Maine, the Camden Conference, Bates College’s Harward Center for Community Partnerships, and the Bates College Model United Nations Club.