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Why I'm Traveling to Ghana to Spread Access to Quality Education

This is the first in a series of blog posts from each of the CommonBond members and employees who will join us on our second-annual trip to Ghana to see CommonBond's Social Promise in action. Read posts by each member and employee who is taking the trip to understand why the trip is important to them and what they are looking forward to.

Name 

Erica Swallow 

School/Grad Year

MIT Sloan School of Management, Class of 2015 

What She's Bringing on the Plane

Her laptop (to document the journey in words), The Promise of a Pencil (a book by Pencils of Promise Founder Adam Braun), and an inflatable travel pillow (for sleeping)

Erica's Story

Traveling with CommonBond and Pencils of Promise to Ghana, for me, is about learning how students learn in difficult conditions.

After finishing my MBA at MIT Sloan last year, I moved back to my home state of Arkansas, after a decade away, to take part in solving the American education crisis. So far, my work has mostly centered around the capital city of Little Rock, but there are students all across the state, in remote areas, who are learning under extremely difficult circumstances.

Rural areas in Arkansas and the country of Ghana face similar educational setbacks. How do we prepare students for a tech-enabled economy when we don't even have access to WiFi? Or what do we do when the majority of students in our classes don't have technology in their homes? Do we even include technology in our curriculum, when our economies are mainly reliant on agriculture and manufacturing? These are the challenges I grapple with every day, and I believe the team at PoP is working through similar issues.

Just how did I end up back in my home state tackling the education crisis? While at Sloan, I took a class on managing the workforce of the future you can take the free digital version, "Shaping the Future of Work," online and it changed my perspective on how I wanted to utilize my MIT degree.

In discussing the future workforce, our class inevitably landed upon an education debate on how students should best prepare for their future roles in the global and ever-changing workforce. I argued hard that it was important for students to focus on their passions and build skills around those interests, while a colleague of mine went in strong with a specialization perspective, pointing to various European economies and their success with having students choose career paths as early as the 8th grade.

In the throes of that debate, I realized where my true calling is: education. It was education, and the dedication of so many selfless teachers and mentors, that had gotten me to where I was at one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. It was education that took my mind off of tough personal experiences, growing up poor in the backwoods of Arkansas. It was education and those dedicated to that field that not only created a path for me to traverse, but also gave hope to the millions of others like me. It finally clicked in my mind: It is education that I must keep pursuing, but not for my own sake this time, but for the empowerment of others.

I had come in to Sloan with a plan to launch a tech startup, but suddenly, I was captivated by the challenge of solving the world's biggest problem: access to education. I was heated and passionate about student voice and access to opportunity. I fervently laid down a vision for early career development with continued flexibility, so that students can explore, make mistakes, and choose new paths. Life is not nice and neat – it is messy, unpredictable, and marked by evolution.

I now work in education, focused on providing as many students as possible with the opportunities that I was afforded as a first-generation college student. Through scholarships and loans, I was able to be the first person in my family to attend college, and I am dedicated to seeing more students across America and the world have that opportunity.

When I learned that I had the opportunity to join CommonBond, the provider of my student loans, and Pencils of Promise in Ghana, I applied right away, because I saw the parallels between small, rural American towns and some of the communities we may visit in Ghana. While the exact circumstances differ, the desire for advancement and lack of resources are similar.

If I can share any lessons or best practices between the American communities I work within and the Ghanaian communities we visit, I would consider this trip a true success. After all, we are going there to help contribute to Pencils of Promise's vision that every child should have access to quality education – a vision I am dedicating my career to.

It is my personal mission to help increase access to education for all children. There is no better place I could be that week, then, than in Ghana, trying to make a difference.

Erica Swallow is a status quo wrecker, entrepreneur, and journalist. Her thoughts have been published in Forbes, Fortune, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. A first-generation college student, she was raised in Paragould, Arkansas and believes education is the key to opportunity. Erica holds degrees from New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is the founder of Southern Swallow digital strategy consultancy.

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