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A Voice for Nigerian Girls

Student Advocates for Reforms in Home Country

By Lauren Brown

Jennifer Soba Pearse

Two weeks after Nigerian militants snatched nearly 300 girls from their boarding school, UMD senior Jennifer Soba Pearse helped organize a rally at the Lincoln Memorial in solidarity with the girls’ parents.

After all, she thought, it wasn’t long ago that she could have been one of the victims.

Pearse, born in the U.S. and raised in Nigeria by her parents—a doctor and an events planner—also attended a boarding school. She’d known of kidnappings in her home city of Port Harcourt. She was sharply aware of the tension between the haves and the have-nots, which was so strong that for some of the latter, ransom payments had become a form of regular income.

Despite those homegrown issues, her transition into an outspoken advocate for social change in Nigeria actually began thousands of miles away. At first interested in community service as more of a college activity than a calling, she was awakened over the past three years through trips to disadvantaged areas across the U.S. Now Pearse has embraced an idea that’s radical to her peers at home: She can push for literacy, for girls’ education, for anything that she believes in.

“Throughout her college years, Jen has come to recognize who she is and wants to be and how she wants to effect change,” says Courtney Holder, coordinator of the university’s Alternative Breaks (AB) program that sends students on service-learning trips. “She’s one of those people who’s taken action, and hasn’t let the scope of issues overwhelm her. Instead it motivates her.”

Pearse grew up in a southern Nigeria port city with a booming oil industry. There, and throughout the country, she says, “There is a huge income inequality. About 10 percent (of the population) holds all the wealth. But we are raised not to think about societal ills—whether there isn’t electricity or security or stability. We’re used to our oppression so that it becomes a way of life.”

Her mother graduated from Howard University, and Pearse came to the U.S. and UMD with no clear plan. She figured she might as well get some community service on her resume, so she signed up for an AB trip in Spring 2012. She wanted to volunteer in Chicago. Instead, she got her fourth choice, a group trip to an American Indian reservation in southwestern South Dakota.

“I’m African,” she recalls thinking at first. “What am I doing in South Dakota in the middle of nowhere?”

But amid building bunk beds for children and insulating cabins against unforgiving winds, Pearse was learning about the Lakota Sioux’s culture, traditions and struggles—with poverty, access to health care, education and more. It sounded to her like home.

“These were one of the most marginalized people, with others invading their space and nothing given back to them,” she says. “But they’re proud people. They’re not money-oriented. They believe in family and culture and nature. We were privileged to learn so much from them.”

She went on later AB trips to the Tennessee-North Carolina border and Atlanta and Philadelphia, and became a peer leader in the organization. She got involved with the university’s Peer Leadership Council with the purpose of clarifying how she could become an agent of social change.

“We knew we needed someone like her in the organization,” says Dave Dessauer, coordinator of co-curricular leadership programs. “Not just because she’s charismatic and dynamic, but she really walks the talk. She’s incredibly passionate and committed to her causes.”

Jennifer Soba Pearse

In November, Pearse founded the EM-powerment Project, a nonprofit that supports Nigerian youth activism and literacy. A month later, during winter break, she and her team of other Nigerian college students collected 700 books (marketing the donations as the entry fee to a barbecue) for her mother’s village of Umuagbai. She and other volunteers sorted and shelved them in a donated space to form the community’s first library.

She had chosen the village because she’d heard it was receptive to change. But even then, some of her friends asked her why she was stirring things up.

In March, Pearse, through her website and social media, invited young Nigerians to participate in a D.C. mentoring walk that was sponsored by the nonprofit Vital Voices to mark International Women’s Day.

She didn’t know it then, but it helped prepare her for the rally she would help pull together on May 2.

A group of Islamic radicals known as Boko Haram had raided a girls’ school in Chibok and abducted the students, a fact the government did not reveal for two weeks. The country rose up in outrage and heartbreak, with marches and demonstrations leading to the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag trending worldwide on Twitter.

Pearse pushed to raise awareness of the issue and highlight rallies around the world. She and several other Nigerian students in the D.C. area then drew about 100 young people, mostly Africans, to the capital to show their solidarity with the parents, hand out fliers about the kidnappings and sign a petition demanding action from Nigerian lawmakers.

“Please raise your voice,” she told the crowd. “We need to do something.”

The event drew national media coverage and led to her being interviewed on MSNBC.

But the girls have not yet been released, and the militants are now suspected in the June kidnappings of 20 more women near Chibok.

Pearse will return to Nigeria for good after graduation and plans to pick up there where she left off here, by organizing mentoring sessions with girls about self-empowerment and the value of education, and by beginning her required year of national youth service.

In the meantime, she flew to China on June 14 for a study abroad course on rural development. When she returns, she’ll lead an AB weekend trip to Baltimore, and then head to South Dakota to work with the Lakota tribe one last time.

“I need that motivation,” she says. “I want to go back not only because I know there’s more work to be done, but because it’s where everything started for me. My grandparents used to tell me that every door opening is an opportunity, and this was one of the biggest doors I even opened in my life.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.