Education opened up the world to Andrew Nalani, Ed.M.’17. Now, with his African Youth Leadership Experience (AYLE) program, he wants to give the same opportunities to youth in his home country of Uganda and neighboring nations.
“As an adolescent, I had never experienced a learning environment that was at once safe enough to welcome my questions, intuitions, vulnerabilities, and understanding about how the world works and yet equally challenging to push the horizons of my intellectual and personal growth,” says Nalani, who had what he calls a “modest” upbringing in Bugolobi, a suburb of Uganda’s capital city, Kampala.
Always a high achiever academically, as a young man Nalani was accepted to one of the preeminent secondary schools in Uganda, but, sadly, right before he was to enter, he lost his mother to cancer.
“Although I continued to excel in my academics, this tragic event — and especially, lacking the skill set and language to discuss these personal challenges with family — gradually affected my motivation and overall experience at school,” he says. It wasn’t until he was attending a youth leadership conference while a student at United World College in New Mexico that he fully understood the connection. “I learned how socio-emotional well-being is intricately linked to academic success in school and, generally, in life,” he says.
This understanding ignited a new passion for and commitment to education in Nalani. In 2014, while still and undergraduate at Dartmouth College, he launched the first AYLE as a pilot program with the goal of giving students like him the social-emotional skills and support they need to navigate their own educations and make strong contributions to their communities. Students from eight schools in East Africa participated in a 10-day residential camp experience in Uganda that provided them tools to develop confidence, creativity, leadership, and community action, and showed them the value of teamwork.
Although Nalani was unable to run a camp in 2015 or 2016, he remained committed to the program throughout his studies at Dartmouth and his time in HGSE’s Human Development and Psychology Program. He continued to research cultural adaptation of social-emotional learning programs and investigate ways in which the AYLE program could better fit the East African context. Then, Nalani noticed something else.
“Students who had been accompanied by a teacher-chaperone to camp transitioned back to their school context better than their peers who were unaccompanied by teachers,” says Nalani, noting that the teacher-chaperones served as advocates for the students and support for their ongoing learning once they returned to school. With the help of a J-Term grant from the Harvard University Center for African Studies, Nalani investigated ways in which AYLE could better incorporate teachers and school leaders into its programs.
Shortly after his graduation from the Ed School last May, Nalani returned to Uganda for the relaunch of the AYLE camp, which welcomed groups of students from four secondary schools in Uganda and Rwanda — and this time each group was accompanied by a teacher.
“All four teachers commented on the hands-on learning approach to working with youth that they appreciated more than the didactic approach that they were used to,” says Nalani. In fact, one of the teachers, says Nalani, shared that she had been on the verge of resigning from her teaching position before the camp, but “left reinvigorated and resolved to recommit to her teaching” and is now working to start an AYLE club at her school.
Nalani’s vision for AYLE continues to evolve, even as he prepares to return to the United States to begin doctoral studies in psychology and social intervention at New York University. Next summer, in addition to running the camp, he hopes to introduce a three-day professional development training focusing for secondary school head-teachers whose students are attending camp. He also plans to pilot a week-long residential program for university students, the African Leadership Experience for University Fellows.
One thing that will not change as AYLE grows is the program’s dedication to the development of social-emotional skills which, along with transformative learning and social justice pedagogy, are the cornerstones to its founder’s educational philosophy.
“Without attending to my social and emotional development,” Nalani says, “I doubt I would have cultivated a capacity for lifelong learning.”