• All school
  • Global Citizenship
  • Intermediate
  • Middle School
Elmore Leadership Talk: Hope, Opportunity, and Tenacity
by Liz Lightfoot '77 P '05, '07, '08, '12
Alumni Relations, Community Outreach, and IDEA Parent-Teacher Alliance

Students, teachers, and parents learned about the importance of hope, opportunity, and tenacity in an inspiring, interactive Elmore Leadership presentation by Jonathan Starr, founder of Abaarso School in Somaliland. Since its founding just over a decade ago, the co-educational boarding school located on the Horn of Africa has sent scores of graduates on to top boarding schools, colleges, and universities across the world. Next spring, Abaarso will see alumni graduate from Harvard (2), Brown, Cambridge, Connecticut College, Swarthmore, and Yale, and the school has been featured on 60 Minutes and in The New York Times for the way it is transforming lives and the notion of what is possible for Somali youth.

Mr. Starr, a hedge fund manager turned educator, was joined at The Country School by one of his former students, Nadira (third from right in photo above), now a senior at Yale studying Economics and African Studies. Nadira, whose admission to Yale and Dartmouth prompted a congratulatory tweet from the The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, joined Mr. Starr for a Q & A — and a little autograph signing — after his presentation.

Nadira gets a little love from Country School fans (who received a message from Nadira in return).

Mr. Starr began his talk with an overview about the African continent in general and Somaliland in particular. (Somaliland declared its independence from Somalia in 1991 after a brutal civil war. However, Somaliland remains unrecognized internationally and the combined area of Somalia and Somaliland has been ranked as the #1 most fragile state in the world by the Fund for Peace for much of the past decade.) Mr. Starr then moved on to discuss his goal in founding Abaarso: to provide hope and opportunity in a region of the world that has seen very little of either in recent decades.

"Without opportunity, people can do extreme things," Mr. Starr said, describing how for some Somali youth, "extreme things" might mean turning to piracy or risking a dangerous journey by land and boat to try to make a new life in Europe. Abaarso has shown that there might be another route. "If the opportunity instead is to get a scholarship to America, to learn a ton, to go to the best universities in the world and to ultimately come back and not only change their family but change the whole future of their country, that's a pretty good one, too, and that's what we've tried to provide. With opportunity, students everywhere can be great."

Of course, opportunity alone doesn't necessarily result in success, so Mr. Starr also talked about tenacity, and how, along with opportunity, it took tenacity and a lot of hard work for his students to reach their goals. He described the journeys some of his students have taken, including Mubarik, who grew up in a nomadic family, herding goats and camels in a remote region along the Somaliland/Ethiopia border. Mubarik remembers the first time he saw a truck when he was 6 years old. He had never seen anything like it, and so he thought it was just another kind of animal, but he was curious and wanted to know how he could make one, which then introduced him to the concept of school, although he had no access to it.

Through his own tenacity and desire for education, Mubarik managed to get to a school at a refugee camp and then to Hargeisa, Somaliland's capital, where he lived and was essentially homeless when he sat for the Abaarso entrance exam. Although he had very little formal education, Mubarik was talented, so he gained admission. Next came a scholarship to Worcester Academy, a boarding school in Worcester, MA, and then to MIT, where he studied Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. In a full circle kind of way, he also interned for a company that makes autonomous vehicles.

After graduating from MIT, Mubarik returned to Somaliland, where he is using his talents and training to improve solar energy in Somaliland. As Mubarik says in a profile on the Abaarso website, he hopes to make a lasting difference in Somaliland by "leveraging my studies to revolutionize the way we educate our children and building technologies that can change how we buy and sell products to create jobs for the Somali people."

During the Q & A, students asked Nadira what it was like growing up in Somaliland, how she managed to enroll at Abaarso, and what her plans are for the future. Nadira, who hopes to go to work and then go to graduate school, plans to return to Somaliland eventually. "I think I definitely want to go back, but at a point where I think I can make a bigger difference," she said, adding that she is interested in Development Economics and wants to be able to have a real impact in her country. Here's more of Nadira's story from Abaarso's website:

To learn more about Abaarso, watch this 60 Minutes feature with Anderson Cooper: http://download.cbsnews.com/media/mpx/2017/04/30/933252675522/60_0430_StarrStudents_1305735_740.mp4. You can also read about Abaarso in Jonathan Starr's book, It Takes a School: The Extraordinary Story of an American School in the World's #1 Failed State. The Country School will have a signed copy in the library and there is also a copy in the alumni office available for borrowing.

The visit from Mr. Starr and Nadira was not the first time we have had members of the Abaarso community participate on campus. Fahima, an Abaarso alumna now studying at Columbia, was one of our speakers at TEDxTheCountrySchool in 2018, Mustafe, now a freshman at Georgetown, helped coach our summer cross country running camp, and Ibrahim, a senior at Connecticut College, helped dig and plant one of our new gardens. Thank you to all of our friends from Abaarso — Jonathan, Nadira, Fahima, Mustafe, and Ibrahim — for inspiring us with your tenacity and commitment to embracing and sharing opportunities. And thank you, Country School students, for being such an attentive, engaged, and grateful audience. 

The Abaarso visit comes through The Country School's Elmore Leadership Program, which aims to develop students into civic-minded citizens who will become tomorrow's leaders, practicing our Country School core values of kindness, respect, and responsibility. Named for long-time Country School trustee Bill Elmore, the Elmore Leadership program regularly invites outside speakers to campus to talk with our students about their own leadership experiences. Students are able to ask questions, learn about real-world situations,  and grapple with some of the larger issues they may face in the future. Mr. Starr's talk and Nadira's visit also support our Global Citizenship initiative. 

Note: Several Country School families have hosted Abaarso students, who in many cases are not able to go home during their years as students in the United States. Any families interested in hosting may contact Liz Lightfoot (liz.lightfoot@thecountryschool.org) for information.