Concepts familiar from grade-school algebra have broad ramifications in computer science.
A graduate from Ghana whose employer helped her pull together the financial resources necessary for applying to MIT is determined now to help families back home pay the public school fees for their children.
Regina Sam, who received her degree in electrical engineering and computer science last week, recently established a nonprofit organization that pays the $10 fee required for children ages 12-15 to attend junior secondary school or JSS (roughly the Ghanaian equivalent of middle school) and to buy paper and pencils for the young students.
"Although many parents realize the value of education, many are forced to withdraw their children from school after completing primary education due to the relatively high cost of junior secondary school. Whereas primary school costs about $4 a term, the cost jumps to about $10 a term in JSS, which could well represent a parent's monthly income from an agricultural job," said Sam in a grant proposal describing EASE (Expediting Access to Standard Education), the organization founded with help from the MIT Public Service Center.
She estimates that 65 percent of familes in rural Ghana are unable to keep their children in school consistently. Those numbers jump even higher for "street children" in the capital city of Accra. While Sam was always aware of the problem and recalls some of her own school friends having trouble paying the bill, her motivation to get involved came from an article she read on the BBC News web site.
The article, about the effects of the International Monetary Fund's policies on the lives of Ghanaians, described the tradeoffs made by families having to decide between food and clean water, or recovering a relative being held at a hospital for his inability to pay the bill, she said.
"But what really touched my heart was children, some as young as six, having to work so they could pay their school fees. This brought back memories of my childhood, when some of my friends were sent home if their parents had not paid their fees on time. Some parents who could not afford the fees either withdrew their children from school or sent them back to school without the fees, only to be thrown out again," said Sam, who comes from a family of six children. Her father is a teacher in her hometown of Cape Coast.
With these facts rattling in her head and her heart full of sympathy for the children back home, an experience in a second-grade classroom in Carlisle provided the lightning rod that sent Sam into action. Wearing traditional Ghanaian dress to make a presentation to the second-graders, she told them a story, taught them a dance and gave a computer presentation on Ghanaian food and games.
"When she returned to the campus, she was so struck by the disparity in access to education between children in Ghana and children in the United States that she decided to do something about it," said Penny Rosser, assistant director of the International Scholars Office and host mother to Sam through MIT's Hosts to International Students Program.
"It was like killing two birds with one stone," said Sam. "I was looking for a way to raise funds to help the children [in Ghana] and I enjoyed sharing Ghana with the [American] kids. I wanted to do it for an honorarium to help some kids in Ghana."
After discussing the idea with Sally Susnowitz, director of the Public Service Center , she decided on other ways to raise money. Eventually, Sam settled on EASE as a means to raise money and distribute it to Ghanaian school children. "We rely on donors, the sale of African artifacts and EASE-Adopt," a program in which donors sponsor a child for $90 over a three-year period.
The public school system in Ghana consists of elementary school, junior secondary school, and, for those who pass a national exam, three years of senior secondary school. EASE will begin sponsoring 20 children in junior secondary school in September, using $900 raised through a booth in Lobby 10 and $2,000 won through the IDEAS Competition last month. They plan to contact individuals and corporations in Ghana and the United States for additional donations.
Working with Sam on the project are Monami Chakrabarti, a senior in management from Richland, Wash.; Arthur Musah, a junior in electrical engineering and computer science from Sunyani, Ghana; Muhammad J. Noor, a sophomore in management from Lahore, Pakistan; Curtis Vanderpuije, a sophomore in mechanical engineering from Accra, Ghana; Ebenezer Woode, a junior in mathematics from Accra; Yehoda Marteki Martei, a Harvard student from Accra; and Rosser.
EASE also has trustees in Ghana, including Sam's father, Joseph Sam, and Sally Honny, a pharmacist who helped her apply to MIT. Sam worked in Honny's pharmacy in Cape Coast for a couple of years after senior secondary school.
"After she learned of my academic background and interest in computers, she suggested that I apply to schools in the United States," said Sam. Honny helped find the resources to cover the application process. Once Sam was admitted to MIT with a financial-aid package, Honny worked with Sam's family to pull together the money to send her to the United States. Airline tickets were provided free from Ghana Airways and American Airlines.
"I'm just really grateful to God and a lot of very kind-hearted individuals," said Sam, an athlete who began running at age nine and was a member of the MIT track team for two years. She plans to compete with the track team again next year when she returns from her internship at IBM to enroll in the M.Eng. program.
Rosser, who was Sam's only family at Commencement this year (her parents weren't able to get visas in time), exhibits a mother's pride in Sam. "I have always been proud of Regina as a kind, generous, honest and hard-working person," said Rosser. "I think all of MIT can be proud of her initiative and dedication to give back to her home country in this way."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 12, 2002.