It was 2015 and award-winning poet and Penn State Altoona professor Patricia Jabbeh Wesley was back in her native country of Liberia, teaching poetry to adult men. Her son Mlen-Too Wesley II pointed out to her that the men didn’t really take her seriously. “They,” he told her, “don’t want to do the work. They want you to publish them but they don’t want to learn how to write.” It was time for her to look for another way to combine her love of writing and teaching with her love for her homeland.
Wesley saw the most need in a younger generation. “A lot of the young people in my country have been neglected,” she says, the results of two civil wars in over a decade. “Their parents may not have the money to take care of them. In the overwhelming political atmosphere, there’s a lack of proper teachers.” There’s also worse—“children are sold into prostitution.”
She knew she wanted to give Liberian girls a chance at a future because what they were facing could be bleak. “I wanted to reach girls, I wanted to change the message. I wanted them to see that education was more important.” She knew once she found girls to teach she would have a receptive audience: “When you come in there and you have a different message, it resonates: ‘Someone cares.’”
With that in mind, during her December 2016 visit to Liberia for the launch of her book When the Wanderers Come Home, Wesley held her first writing workshop—“less than 10 participants in the New Hope International Academy”—prior to the reading for her new book. One of the attendees was “a cute little girl, African, 10 or 11, who inspired me” to start reaching out to girls. “I held a meeting. She brought two girls, and then she told me about two guys. When the boys saw their friends doing this, they said, ‘When are you going to have this for us?’ I decided I am going to reach everyone.”
To do that, she started with social media to recruit interested students. The first workshop, held in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, was full—“25 young girls in the room, writing poetry. Little girls, middle school, high school. Five kids came from Gbanga, Bong County, a three-hour drive by public truck.” The students’ efforts were not lost on Wesley. “I was so blown away.” But she also “knew we were in business.”
Sending messages on social media and holding workshops was merely the beginning of Wesley’s plans to give Liberian children a new message. She developed a plan to create the Young Scholars of Liberia, an organization dedicated to encouraging and educating Liberian students in writing and literature, and then registered that organization as a nonprofit in Liberia. To accomplish her goals, she needed students, funding, plans for each class she would hold, and places to hold them. She would also need a presence in Liberia for when she was back in the United States teaching at Penn State Altoona.
First workshop, Monrovia, June 2019
Funding, which would allow Wesley to supply writing materials, came from two internal grants from Penn State “because they wanted to support me,” supplemented by additional money from Wesley’s division head, Brian Black, Distinguished professor of history and environmental studies. Wesley knew that according to the rules she could not use that money for food but that she still needed to both feed her students and have a closing ceremony dinner, so she turned to social media to raise the rest.
For a constant presence in Liberia, Wesley turned to students. “In order to run an organization that far away I appointed six young people to be mentees/mentors.” They are not ‘scholars,’ they are aspiring to be scholars. We are mentoring them as they go through college.”
Recruiting students would require some effort but, as Wesley says, she already had experience in finding people and getting them to make connections. She and her husband, Dr. Mlen-Too Wesley, Vice President of Academic Affairs at the William V. S. Tubman University in Harper, Liberia, have “spent over 35 years teaching young people to evangelize. One reached one and that one reached another.” That word-of-mouth method would work well for attracting students but to get them interested in Young Scholars, “we wanted to give them incentives. Once you inspire them they come up with great poetry.”
Once funding was acquired, supplies purchased, workshop plan in place, and the spring 2019 semester was over at Penn State Altoona, Wesley flew back to Liberia, where she nearly hit the ground running. Within two days she was meeting with her six mentors/mentees, whom she had selected in 2018, for a day-long planning session. “You have to have young leaders to own the organization. I emphasized that the organization belongs to them and that it must reflect well on us. So when you tell them that they are responsible not only to themselves or their parents or their peers but to a body of supporters outside of Liberia, they take ownership.”
Two days later, the Young Scholars gathered for a daylong training class. They discussed such topics as “Who is a Scholar?” “Taking Ownership of Our Organization,” and “The Qualities of a Mentor.” Wesley was very pleased with the students. “After a lively and fun discussion, question-and-answer time, we spent the last 30 minutes talking about the issues of grammar, writing, and editing, etc. I’m very impressed by the talent we have in Liberia, and I pray for many opportunities of growth, jobs, and scholarships for grad school so our most talented can aspire to more and help restore their country.”
It was time for the students to shine in the public arena. A Poetry Grand Slam was held in a local restaurant in Monrovia, where, Wesley says, “Young people from all walks of life came out, and they read from their original works—poems about family, country, women’s issues, abuse, etc., and to a very engaged audience. Our MC, Aaron Ireland, and his assistant, Vermon Washington, rocked the room with jokes and stories about Liberian life.”
A group of students poses with two of the Mentee-Mentors and Patricia Jabbeh Wesley after the closing program on July 23 in Monrovia, Liberia.
For the next three weeks, Wesley held workshop after workshop on writing and poetry to groups of eager young students. She has seen growth in them personally: “One of the things I noticed this year is that the students felt so comfortable with me and with one another and would welcome in love.” They showed their feelings in other ways as well. Wesley needed to end her sessions every day by 5:00 for a very practical reason. Food needed to be purchased on the day it would be used so “I needed to get to the market. But the young people wouldn’t let me go. I got to my car, they were in the car!”
Some moments were not so light-hearted, she says. “Last year someone wrote about sexual assault from a teacher. She had rejected him and he failed her.” And other moments showed Wesley her efforts over the years are remembered: “This year we did workshops in major centers. One father got so inspired he went to all our workshops. He is an educator. Last year he wanted me to come see his school and do a talk but I didn’t have time. This year I had the time and went.”
In all, Wesley conducted four writing workshops in the Monrovia area, two general and two master workshops for advanced students, she says, in a “space donated by Cookshop.biz, which is owned by two young Liberian expats, Mlen-Too Wesley II and Charles D. Cooper, who have supported us with resources over the years. Without a workshop space, I would have to rent a place.” She also returned to the New Hope International Academy, where that first workshop in 2016 had taken place, for another workshop; the school “is owned by a parent of one of the mentee-mentors, Jee-Won M.E. Arkoi, who is now the coordinator of the group in my absence.” But Wesley wasn’t finished yet. “I flew to Harper, Maryland, 360 miles from Monrovia, to conduct workshops at the William V. S. Tubman University, in a space donated by the university and with support from Dr. Mlen-Too Wesley.”
In what she calls a “highlight” of the workshops, on the last day “there were two writing workshops on July 20, 10 am to 1 pm for a Master Workshop for older college and advanced writers and a 2–4:30 afternoon general workshop of high scholars in the Monrovia area.” But “when the morning workshop was done, the morning participants refused to leave the room and decided they needed more time to learn and asked to remain in the workshop since that was the last day. At 2 pm, we had to bring in more chairs and tables to accommodate two groups of students at the same time.” Wesley heard the message they were giving her loud and clear: “This tells me that what we are doing is invaluable and necessary and that the students we’re reaching understand what it is we are about as a movement. I see this organization as a movement whose purpose is to change the minds of our youth in order to instill a new message in our struggling nation.”
Finally, it was time for two closing exercises, one for all participants in the Monrovia region and another in Maryland for that set of workshops. Wesley made sure to recognize the students’ efforts. “During the closing programs, I presented certificates to all of the workshop participants. Those who won the Young Scholars of Liberia Poetry Competitions received an award in the form of partial scholarships toward their education: All awards were funded by funds raised on social media. All winning poems were written during workshop sessions and not at home.” In all, she says, “the Young Scholars of Liberia 2019 summer workshops reached 250 young people in Monrovia and in Harper, Maryland County, in various workshops between June 24 and July 26.”
Because of their work with Wesley, some of the Young Scholars mentee/mentors had the thrill of being published in DoveTales: An International Journal of the Arts. Four poems by four Young Scholars and two photographs by another two Young Scholars have been accepted for publication. The students were not the only ones pleased to see this happen: Wesley says, “For me, this is a dream come true and tells me of a new future for our young Liberian writers and artists whom we plan to work with. These are the young scholars we have been mentoring and working with, and it tells me that we do have a lot of talent in Liberia, and we can break through the international literary world if we work just a little bit harder. The poems that I saw, some since last year, tell me how powerful we can be if we put our own stories on paper.”
The future is bright for both students and professor. Two of the Young Scholars graduated from college this year—Cece Muna Nimely, winner of the 2018 Young Scholars Writing Competition in Harper, Maryland County, Liberia, received a bachelor’s degree in public administration from William V. S. Tubman University. Aaron Ireland graduated from African Methodist Episcopal University and is now a short story writer and executive director of Youth Alliance for Life Skills.
And Wesley is back to teach for the fall semester at Penn State Altoona. In her farewell message to the Young Scholars, she made clear her feelings: “My spirit is high and I am filled with awe at your writing, your words that tell our story through a fresher lens than I thought you were capable of. Your poems are following me now wherever I go.”
Wesley will be on sabbatical in the spring and is planning her return to Liberia to “conduct workshops on basic writing and creative writing, and training sessions not only in the two counties we reached this year but in more.” In addition, she will partner with the New Hope International Academy in developing workshops for that area of Monrovia and work to “change the mindset of our youth by teaching them some of the skills they would otherwise not learn in their schools and prepare them for the future.”
Again an ambitious schedule, one that will require funding, a quest she continues. “We plan to have an office and a volunteer staff that keeps the movement afloat in my absence.” And the end? “At the end of my semester in Liberia, our plan is to publish either a journal of their writing or a book of writing by young scholars.” By devoting her time to workshops and classes, helping these young people of Liberia to speak from their hearts and to be heard, Professor Patricia Jabbeh Wesley is dedicated to changing the message.