“I'm Liberian at heart, for sure.”
Assistant Professor Carla White Ellis, PhD returned recently from the small West African country with an even more profound appreciation for its culture and population.
Although it may be the smallest state, Rhode Island is home to the largest Liberian population in the United States. As of 2012, an estimated 15,000 Liberians lived in the Ocean State and White Ellis found that a number of them were finding their way into her classroom.
Before coming to Johnson & Wales full-time in 2010, White Ellis was a professor at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), which is where she first began meeting adult Liberian students.
“My interactions with these students ultimately inspired my PhD work,” White Ellis said. And since then she's only become more involved with the local Liberian community, serving as the board chairperson of SunRise Forever, Inc., a non-political, non-governmental non-profit organization that prioritizes humanitarian, educational and developmental activities within Rhode Island and Liberia.
This past summer, White Ellis spent two weeks in Liberia with SunRise Forever, traveling to 5 different villages and distributing 500 backpacks full of school supplies to elementary school children.
“Some of the children had never seen a white person before, never mind been given a brand new backpack,” White Ellis said. “They wanted to touch and feel my skin.”
In addition to distributing the backpacks, White Ellis also gave a presentation to more than 100 students at Bomi Community College. Her presentation focused on critical thinking, reading and academic writing.
Despite having traveled to more than 37 different countries, this was the first time White Ellis had traveled to Liberia. However, even she was unprepared for the level of poverty that spans the country.
“It's been 14 years since Liberia's civil war, and the country still has no clean or running water and no power,” she said. “There are two paved roads in the entire country. There are 15-year-olds who are just beginning first grade. More than 60% of the population is illiterate. There are huge infrastructure, health and education issues across the country.”
Liberia was also one of the countries hardest hit by Ebola, leading to a high orphan population, White Ellis explained. “Yet they're still smiling, and they're the most amazing, beautiful, hospitable people,” she said. “Their faith really gets them through.”
Even though White Ellis is back in the U.S., her work with Liberia continues both with and outside of SunRise Forever. White Ellis is currently coordinating faculty professional development workshops via Skype, as well as alumni relations efforts, with Liberian colleges and universities and Johnson & Wales, CCRI and the University of Rhode Island.
White Ellis feels it's important for Americans, especially Rhode Islanders, to know more about the country she quickly grew to appreciate.
“Liberia was colonized by the United States as the first country of freed American slaves. English is their first language, their constitution is based on ours—this is a country that loves us, and we need to focus on more love than hate.”