For the past 10 years, Ashleigh DeLuca has helped pay tuition for a group of students in West Africa, helping three of them graduate from high school.
Those students now have their sights set on earning college degrees in the United States, and DeLuca, formerly of Glen Cove, is determined to get them there.
After graduating from high school in 2008, DeLuca, then 17, traveled to Gambia to teach English. She taught about 50 sixth-grade students in a crowded classroom in Makumbaya, a rural village with no running water or electricity, DeLuca said.
“I saw the families and kids, so I knew what they were up against,” said DeLuca, 27, who now lives in Washington, D.C. but regularly visits her family in Smithtown. “They couldn’t afford for their priority to be the education of their children. Education was a luxury.”
She was struck by the poverty in the village but inspired by 16 particularly bright and dedicated students, she said. They were all expected to cook and clean and work to support their families and would then complete their homework late at night by candlelight, DeLuca said.
“That really took me aback,” she said. “I wanted to foster that and keep them on the right path, but I knew money was the primary obstacle.”
Before DeLuca left, after almost a year of teaching in the village, she made a deal with those 16 students and their families. If they remained in school, she would pay for their tuition until they graduated from high school.
DeLuca created the Starling Sponsorship Program as a freshman at George Washington University, studying communications. Through the program, families, many from Long Island, sponsored one of DeLuca’s former students, paying between $60 and $100 annually in tuition and transportation costs for each child.
Over the years, some students had to leave school to go to work, some married and one student died of malaria, DeLuca said.
Three graduated with their degrees, twins Awa and Adama Jarju and Penda Jallow, all 23.
“I thought, ‘Wow, they did it,’” DeLuca said. “I was so proud and happy that they had that drive to make it through.”
Now that they had earned their high school diplomas, the three students wrote to DeLuca one day to ask if she would help them get to an American college. Jallow wrote about her hope to study nursing and eventually start her own mobile medical unit in Gambia. Adama Jarju wanted to study computer science and Awa to study business.
“ ‘Dunya munoy maccoro’ is a phrase in Mandinka, my native language, which means the world is about helping one another,” Jallow said in a news release from the Starling Sponsorship Program. “I want to do my best to help the same neighbors who have helped me.”
Unlike what she had done 10 years ago, DeLuca said she couldn’t promise them anything but she’d do everything she could to help them study in the United States.
She paid about $500 for application fees and for the students to take their SATs. They were accepted to six schools but ultimately decided on St. Thomas Aquinas in upstate Sparkill, DeLuca said.
Jallow, Awa and Adama Jarju have been awarded partial scholarships, covering about half of their tuition, DeLuca said. But to cover four years of school, housing and other expenses she needs to raise $270,000 before the semester begins in August, DeLuca said.
So far she’s raised about $6,000 through a GoFundMe page and is planning fundraising events. She’s a long way off from her goal, but DeLuca said she’s still hopeful.
“I’ve heard their dreams,” DeLuca said. “They came from a village with no running water and no electricity and despite everything they’ve been through, they have not given up hope.”