Thursday March 30, 2017

Somali school paves way for students to get into Harvard, MIT

While there were many challenges at first to make the Abaarso School co-ed, now there are many female applicants.

While there were many challenges at first to make the Abaarso School co-ed, now there are many female applicants. (Henry Holt & Co. - Macmillan)

Listen 20:42

Read story transcript

Abdisamad Adan is the first Somali undergraduate in decades to be accepted to Harvard.

One of 19 siblings who grew up without electricity or indoor plumbing, he is one of the growing number of success stories to come from a unique African high school that is working on getting its students into top colleges on full scholarships.

"I didn't picture my life leading me to Harvard or anything like it," Adan said.

Adan is a former student of the Abaarso School of Science and Technology in Somaliland — a self-declared republic still internationally considered to be part of Somalia.

Adan, now studying economics at Harvard, gives a lot of credit to Jonathan Starr for his success.

Jonathan Starr

The Abaarso School was founded in 2008 by former Wall Street hedge fund manager, Jonathan Starr. (Twitter/Patrick Adam)

Starr is a former hedge fund manager — an American with an uncle from Somaliland — who wanted to do something different and "fun" after success in the financial world. He opened the Abaarso school, which has both male and female students, in 2008. Aden is one of many to move from there to elite international institutions after graduation.

He tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that getting girls to come to school at the start was extremely difficult but now there are tons of female applicants.

"Ultimately, the boys actually became terrific supporters of the girls — it just took time. I think it was very foreign to them. And for me, I felt like they had to see that these girls were their equals."

Aden says seeing girls succeed in school gives him hope for the future.

"[Girls are] encouraged to think big and to want to one day lead their country, and that has been actually transformational."
 

 Starr doesn't consider himself a "traditional do-gooder."

"I was much, much more intense," he tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"The cliche is usually that they donate money. And I did donate money. But I moved there. I lived on campus. I was with the students 18 hours a day."

​Related: An Unlikely Education

Starr says his students are family and worries about the impact Trump administration's travel restrictions might have on their future success.

"I understand the fears that some people in America have," Starr says.

"[But] Abdisamad coming to America, going to Harvard, going back, and becoming a leader and developing his country is good for American security."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien.