Holy Family University helps introduce phones, handhelds to Tanzania village

Holy Family's Sister Francesca Onley shows students in Newala, Tanzania, how to use a handheld computer and phone.
Holy Family's Sister Francesca Onley shows students in Newala, Tanzania, how to use a handheld computer and phone.
Posted: March 12, 2012

Getting to the school in a remote Tanzanian village meant 22 hours of travel, including three plane rides and an exceedingly bumpy, four-hour Jeep trek.

But Sister Francesca Onley, the 79-year-old president of Holy Family University, is glad she made the trip.

With money from a United Nations organization, Holy Family teamed with a Stanford University professor to give handheld learning computers and phones to teenagers who live in impoverished conditions who had little previous experience with technology.

"It was good for the soul," Onley said of her journey to the village of Newala in the east African country. "If everybody would do that once in their lifetime, they would realize that no matter how poor they are, they're not as poor as these people.

"We in the U.S. have a lot of opportunity for education. I think the young people in our country sometimes don't take advantage of it. I would say this would really inspire them to take advantage of the opportunities they have."

The mobile devices - called TeacherMates, which resemble Game Boys - and the Android phones were used for literacy and math development, piano and guitar simulation, and as cameras, among other tasks.

The devices were loaded with games to improve students' listening, speaking, and literacy skills, said Arafeh Karimi, director of international relations for the Seeds of Empowerment, the nonprofit organization founded through Stanford. The computers, he noted in an e-mail, are durable and waterproof, making them ideal for Third World conditions.

For two weeks in February, a team of educators taught the students how to use the devices and trained their teachers so the technology would remain in use. They also bought a sound system and backup generator to provide adequate power for the equipment.

"There's hardly any electricity there, maybe enough for four hours a day," said Onley, who has been president of Holy Family in Northeast Philadelphia for more than three decades. "Now, with this equipment, the school will have its own electrical backup."

It was all done on a budget of about $35,000 provided by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, which encourages international peace and respect by fostering collaboration.

Onley helped secure the grant through her leadership role in the United Nations' International Association of University Presidents. She met Stanford professor Paul Kim in 2009 at a global education summit in Doha, Qatar, where he was speaking about using such devices to bridge the technology gap in Third World nations. The two decided to work on a project together in Africa.

Holy Family graduate Jen Andrews, now a teacher in Philadelphia, had served in the Peace Corps and knew of an education program in Newala perfect for such assistance, Onley said.

Andrews contacted Jen Harding, director of the Jiamini Scholarship Fund, who helped coordinate the project at the Nangwanda Secondary School. The scholarship fund sponsors the education of orphaned and other vulnerable children at local government schools.

Onley, who paid for her travel out of her Holy Family budget, was impressed with the work of the team, she said.

"I was there to review what they were doing and make sure there was some level of sustainability after we leave," Onley said. "We feel the sustainability is very positive because we left everything they need for the program."

Educators will return to the village for a six-month follow-up, she said.

She also was impressed with the inquisitiveness and happiness of the students, ages 14 to 19. Most have never been exposed to computers and survive with only about 12 books for every 50 students. There were 40 to 50 students in each classroom.

"They were so happy with this technology, with the phones, so that they could take their own pictures and the pictures of others," Onley said. "They were really good kids."

Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693, ssnyder@phillynews.com, or @ssnyderinq on Twitter.

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