Steven Tamba and Girish Jammu came to UNCG seeking an education for themselves. They’ll leave with a plan to provide it to dozens of others a world away.

Randomly selected to be freshmen roommates at UNCG nearly four years ago, they couldn’t have been more different.

Steven, born in Liberia, fled his homeland with family as a small child in the midst of civil war. He grew up in Ghana with little means and moved with his father to the United States for a chance at a better life. They found it in Charlotte.

Girish, born in India, moved to North Carolina when he was in second grade. He traveled back and forth to India to attend the best of boarding schools, then settled back in Durham to finish out high school.

But they became fast friends, bonding over a desire to do more – much more – than simply earn a degree at UNCG. Now seniors, they’ll graduate in May, Steven with a degree in political science and Girish in computer science.

“I’m from a very poor family that had nothing,” Steven said. “When I came to college, I saw it was the best thing that could happen to me. I thought it would be the best thing to give back to people – education.”

Naturally, Steven felt drawn to help people in his homeland of Liberia, where education comes with a cost and money to pay for it is scarce. “We could give them food or clothes, but those things only last for awhile. But if we give them education, it is a lifetime gift. They can use it not just to change themselves but their community.”

But where to start?

The friends wrote a proposal and asked professors for feedback. They polished drafts using UNCG’s writing center until, finally, they felt they had it. Their goal? To create a nonprofit and raise enough scholarship money to send 50 Liberian children to school. The average cost per student: $60-$80 a year.

The process of incorporating their nonprofit – Education for Liberia – took two years and $3,000 of their own money to complete. “We wanted to build trust, show the community we are not just some kids asking for some money to do something greater,” Girish explained. “We wanted to establish ourselves.”

The next step: traveling to Liberia to lay the groundwork for their plan. “Once we had our legal documents, there was no turning back,” Steven said. “Girish and I knew we had to go to Liberia to know the people we were helping.”

UNCG’s African Student Union helped raise money for the trip. Steven and Girish paid the rest out of their own pockets. They couldn’t afford for both of them to go. Steven, who could stay with extended family, was the logical choice.

It would be a life-changing experience.

“That is when I realized this wasn’t just two college students who got excited about something. We had a bigger mission,” Steven said. “I saw how privileged we are. We have books, food, a comfortable bed to sleep in. When I came back, I realized I had no right to complain anymore.”

Steven visited 10 schools while there and returned to the five he was most impressed with to explain the project. The schools agreed to a partnership. He interviewed interested students and their parents himself.

“I met a kid who told me, ‘If I could go to school, that is the only thing I would ask for.’ I just nodded my head and took his information,” he remembered. “In America, we have free education and a lot of kids take education for granted. But in Liberia, it’s not a priority and civil war broke the system. You have kids who want to go to school but can’t.”

Education for Liberia received more than 70 applications for scholarships. The roommates accepted 62 students, although at that point they didn’t know where the money would come from.

“We just knew it was the right thing to do,” Girish recalled.

“We said let’s get these kids in school. And we did it,” Steven said. “I can go out and buy a shirt for $20 or $25. If I cut back on a few shirts a year, that is tuition for a student. And if Girish does that, that’s another tuition. If we have 60 people doing that, that’s 60 tuitions. I’m pretty sure there would be 62 people who would say I’d cut back on a few shirts.”

Bob Griffiths, a political science professor at UNCG and adviser to the African Student Union, said he was impressed by their commitment to such an important issue. “What struck me was not only the impressive nature of this initiative, but that this effort brings together key themes that UNCG increasingly emphasizes – global awareness and service– and seems to epitomize the idea of ‘doing something bigger altogether.’ ”

The roommates say their work is far from done. They dream of building a school in Liberia and working with the United Nations to train teachers. But both acknowledge UNCG as their launchpad.

“I came to UNCG and I met this amazing person. It was the best decision of my life,” Steven says. “Apart from earning a degree, it has opened my eyes to the world around me.”

Girish said they learned as much creating Education for Liberia as they have in their classes. “We wanted to do something more. We value giving back to the community. We want that to be our legacy.”

Steven agreed. “There is a difference in having passion about change and turning that passion into action. We have to stand up for the things we feel strongly about. This is something that connected us. Our passions came together.”

Want to help? Visit http://www.educationforliberia.org/ to learn more about the nonprofit and to make a donation. See a video documenting the education system in Liberia here.

Story by Betsi Robinson, University Relations

Photography by Chris English, University Relations