I was 13 when I started my primary education at a refugee camp in Guinea, West Africa. My father and mother did not have formal education and I was just two years old when my mother passed away. Liberia was in the middle of a civil war, and I escaped rebel forces trying to conscript me as a child soldier three times before fleeing to Guinea in 1994.
In 2005, I graduated as valedictorian and student council president, and then enrolled at Cuttington University, where I graduated in three years instead of four. I continued with graduate school and obtained a master’s degree in public health. My high school education, bachelor’s degree and post-graduate degrees were all sponsored by The Salvation Army.
From 2009-2010, I served as program assistant at The Salvation Army Polytechnic (T-SAP), when the institution was a vocational school. In 2011, I received a U.S.-government-funded scholarship to pursue a second master’s degree in environmental science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Additional graduate student funding enabled me to complete my doctorate in May 2018.
After graduation, I returned to Liberia and volunteered as president of T-SAP. The school was badly affected by the Ebola epidemic in 2014, which caused it to close. But in 2017, our long-awaited accreditation was granted.
Along with two vice-presidents, I worked to partially renovate the main building and recruit academic deans, staff and faculty. In less than two months, we recruited more than 300 students. Commissioner Birgitte Brekke-Clifton, international secretary for program resources, officially opened the college in November 2018. One year later, the first 33 students from the technical and vocational education department graduated.
Education with Integrity
On August 17, 2019, a crowd gathered at the Monrovia Christian Fellowship Centre, smiling and chatting, singing and dancing. These were the parents and loved ones who had gathered to support their children as they graduated from The Salvation Army’s Len Millar School. I joined the procession and we marched to the front and took our seats. My seat was special. It was reserved for the guest speaker.
In my speech, I charged the graduates to have “education with integrity.” I coined this phrase as a motto for T-SAP. After defining integrity and giving several examples, I cautioned the class of 2019 that it is difficult to go against the tide of a society that scorns integrity—it’s easier to go with the flow of lawlessness and corruption. But we are not called to mediocrity—we are called to fear God and serve humanity. I emphasized that it was worth standing for integrity because that is the key to changing Liberia and making it a great nation.
Being selected as the guest speaker for the Len Millar graduation was an honour, but not a coincidence. I believe it was designed by God and implemented by the goodwill of people who denied themselves in order to provide education for the least among us.
Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world.” I have seen first-hand the impact of this in my life. I could go on, listing my humanitarian work with One Life Liberia, Inc., a non-profit organization I established while in Wisconsin to build schools in remote villages in Liberia; my work with Landesa, where I played a pivotal role in the passage of landmark land-rights legislation that impacts the lives of some three million rural Liberians; or my efforts to help those struggling with addiction on the street corners of Monrovia.
As we begin 2021, I like to remind people, especially young people, that nothing is impossible with God as long as we are willing to work hard and serve him. I encourage you to go for your highest dream. Mine was to obtain a doctorate and use that to serve humanity. Do not worry about how you will get there but trust in God. He will pour people and institutions into your life that will help create the pathway to achieving your dreams.
Dr. Emmanuel K. Urey is the president of The Salvation Army Polytechnic in Liberia.