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Alumni bolster academics at Tanzanian School

Lisa and Seth Heinert at Orkeeswa Secondary School in Tanzania
Lisa and Seth Heinert at Orkeeswa Secondary School in Tanzania

Though Lisa and Seth Heinert spent their days in a sea of red school uniforms, they were a long way from Lincoln, Nebraska.

Orkeeswa Secondary School is nestled in the foothills of the Monduli Mountains in Lashaine Village, northwestern Tanzania. The lone secondary school in the village, it offers the only opportunity for local students to continue their education past the primary level.

From 2011 to 2013, the Heinerts called Orkeeswa and Lashaine Village home. They left for Tanzania with the intent to volunteer for one year and stayed longer.

"We stayed because we could," Lisa said. "We know that there are many people who cannot give in this way, and we knew we could and we wanted to. We looked ahead of us and saw how much more we could accomplish in two years rather than just one."


DUTIES AT ORKEESWA SCHOOL

At Orkeeswa, Seth was the school coordinator, in charge of all academic scheduling and instrumental in implementing teacher training and curriculum development. He also taught agriculture and spearheaded the launching of several landmark projects related to that subject, among them a livestock program, beekeeping and gardening projects.

Lisa held many different roles in her time at Orkeeswa. In addition to teaching English, she was a leader in the ongoing development of the life skills classes and was the force behind the expansion of the activities and sports curriculum. Among her favorite responsibilities was coaching basketball and American football.

Although she has returned to Nebraska, Lisa continues to serve Orkeeswa as the sponsorship coordinator, working to maintain the one-to-one relationships that are Orkeeswa's means for providing a tuition-free education to their students.

With the Heinerts' expertise, dedication and compassion, Orkeeswa Secondary School has grown in its ability to overcome Tanzania's highly ineffective education system.

EDUCATIONAL LIMITATIONS IN TANZANIA:

There are only 18 universities in the whole country; the state of Nebraska alone boasts more. Of 400,000 students who are in secondary school, approximately 50,000 will matriculate to college. This year, 60 percent of the students that sat for the Form Four – equivalent to 10th grade in the U.S. – National Exam failed it. The system is based on a student's successful completion of national exams; students must drop out of school if they fail. The exams, it seems, are designed to create failures rather than successes because there are simply not enough schools to accommodate all who wish to learn.

These statistics paint the picture of a country facing a difficult future. Without an educated, skilled workforce the economy will remain stagnant; poverty will persist. At Orkeeswa, however, the method of learning is rigorous and holistic.


A BRIGHTER FUTURE FOR LASHAINE VILLAGE

Students are taught the core subjects: mathematics, languages and sciences, as well as entrepreneurship and life skills. Lisa has made sure that students are also exposed to extracurricular activities like woodworking, debate, journalism and sports. This all-encompassing curriculum, focused on building community leaders, goes well beyond the expectations of most schools, private and public in Tanzania.

Orkeeswa consistently places in the top 10 percent of the region on national exams and performs well in athletic and academic competitions. Through global exchange programs, students at Orkeeswa have traveled to local cities, neighboring countries and as far abroad as the United States. Opportunities to travel, to compete, or simply to broaden students' horizons beyond the village are a rare and special thing in this corner of the world.

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln's influence has been deeply felt at Orkeeswa, and has played an important part in changing the landscape of educational opportunities for this under-served population. At least 50 students head to after school activities in red Husker T-shirts and the American football team sends cheers of "Go Big Red" reverberating through the hills after every practice. The Heinerts point to their studies at Lincoln as vital to their daily lives in Tanzania.

Working at a relatively new organization in key positions to develop and improve systems, they turned to the skills that they acquired in the Leadership Program at UNL. "Human psychology, structural development, agriculture, leadership, community development … all of these things that we studied and examined at UNL have come into play here," Seth said. "It's rewarding to see how these ideas, this knowledge that we gained from our time in the classroom can be put into action – particularly when that action leads to such tremendous improvements."


A JOB WELL DONE

When the Heinerts departed, they left the school with a bright future as well. "Orkeeswa will succeed in the face of many obstacles: restrained resources, a crumbling education system, etc., because of the heart of the people there," Seth said. "There are many development projects around the world that are more established than Orkeeswa but less effective because they lack ownership from the community.

Orkeeswa has the faith of the village, the faith of the students, the faith of the staff. It is the heart of these people that makes this project possible and sustainable." And the people of Orkeeswa won't forget the Heinerts. "Seth and Lisa are flat out the best volunteers that you could ask for," said Peter Luis, founder and director of the Indigenous Education Foundation of Tanzania (IEFT) that funds and operates Orkeeswa Secondary School.

"Their commitment to the students and their community was remarkable. Their dedication and support of their fellow staff members also defined their excellence. Their determination and their sacrifices produced incredible results that will last a lifetime." Perhaps it is a coincidence that these Big Red alumni spent their years in a sea of Orkeeswa red uniforms but there is nothing coincidental about the connection that Seth and Lisa made to Orkeeswa School and the future leaders of Tanzania.

It is the product of their strength, leadership, passion and, in part, the expertise they gleaned from their time at UNL.


WHAT’S TO COME

The future is bright if a bit unknown for this dynamic duo. They returned to Nebraska in April of 2013 to reconnect with family and to find gainful employment. A return to Africa and to Orkeeswa Secondary School is possible but the next chapter will be determined in time. There are a few things that are certain, however. Working at Orkeeswa School has set a high standard for the Heinerts. It has grown their passion for serving others and their belief in the power of a good education.

Courtesy: Sara DuPont, Nebraska Magazine, summer 2013