“What Can Be Done Today?”

Senior Aminata Sy founded a program for Philly kids and will soon head to Congress to begin her Rangel Graduate Fellowship.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

By Susan Ahlborn

(L) Aminata Sy, LPS'19, with a student in the African Community Learning Program.

Even at Penn, Aminata Sy, LPS’19, stands out. The international relations major was in the inaugural class of Perry World House student fellows, researching how to increase women’s political participation in democracies around the world. Though she spoke no English when she came to the U.S. from Senegal, she is now an English minor and a journalist who has written for the Daily Pennsylvanian, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Tribune, and the Sigma Iota Rho Journal of International Relations. She envisioned and created the African Community Learning Program, which gives local children from Africa and with African parents insight into their backgrounds and helps them to succeed in the U.S. Now she’s been chosen as a Charles B. Rangel Graduate Fellow, a program that will take her to work in Congress and a U.S. embassy, as well as help pay for her graduate studies over the next two years, as she prepares to become a U.S. Foreign Service officer.

Oh, and she’s also a wife and the mother of three children, ages 16, 14, and seven.

“It takes a lot of discipline, consistent hard work, a strong support system, a belief in the unseen, and opportunities,” says Sy on how she does it. “I’m someone who plans for the future but I live in the present. I function with the mindset of, ‘What can be done today?’”

Sy is one of Penn’s Bread Upon the Waters Scholars. Bread scholarships were created in 1986 by Elin Danien, CGS’82, G’89, GR’98, to enable women over 30 to earn their college degrees. To date, the scholarships have helped more than 100 women like Sy to earn a Penn degree through the College of Liberal and Professional Studies. Sy will graduate with distinction in international relations and be honored with the Penn Association of Alumnae 2019 Continuing Education Award.

Sy came to the U.S. in 2001 at age 21 to join her husband in Philadelphia. She had dropped out of high school in 10th grade and wasn’t thinking about continuing her education. Her main concern in her new country was how to find a job.

When her first two children entered pre-K in 2007, it inspired her to go back to school to help them advance their education. She later completed her GED, had her third child, and seven months later enrolled in the Community College of Philadelphia. (“He’s my college baby,” she says. “I hope we’ll walk together at graduation.”) When she learned that Penn had scholarships that would help to support her studies, she applied.

“I think of Penn as not just a school but a world that has schools,” she says. “You get a great education, but there are so many other opportunities if you are willing to open your eyes and connect with people.”

As a Perry World House student fellow, Sy visited the State Department and the Pentagon and met with prominent leaders like former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and then-President of Mongolia Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. She used Senegal as a case study for her research on increasing women’s political participation in democracies. “Senegal has a parity law, which mandates that women represent 50% of the candidates put forth by political parties in both national and local elections.” The study concluded that parity laws are slowly chipping away long-standing walls of gender discrimination by paving a way for more equality both in politics and society.

As a journalist, Sy was a press intern at Philadelphia’s City Hall and a scholarship recipient from the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. “Writing is just something I love to do,” she says. “Storytelling is something I love to do, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing.”

In the summer of 2017, with the support of her husband and Penn professors and advisors, she established the non-profit African Community Learning Program, which provides tutoring and cultural education to local elementary and middle-school students. “My neighborhood has many families from African countries, and I noticed that the children often put that cultural side of themselves away,” she explains.

Sy created the curriculum and developed a vetted content-relevant library. Beyond that, she says, “We give our students a space to be able to express themselves with confidence. Even if they come in with no English, our assumption is that they each have knowledge and something to bring to the classroom.”

African Community Learning Program was a 2018 Social Impact Finalist at the Wharton Startup Challenge competition. “I was a young woman from Senegal who came to America not speaking English, but with the support of many, I’ve been able to get where I am today,” says Sy. “If we start that kind of support system with the kids, just imagine what they can do for the city, for the country, for the world. if we don’t support the kids, they can’t do it on their own.”

After she graduates on May 20, Sy will travel the same day to Washington, D.C., to begin 10 weeks of learning and interning with a member of Congress as an International Affairs Rangel Fellow. In the fall she’ll begin studying public policy at American University School of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.  Next summer she’ll be an intern at a U.S. embassy overseas.

“I wanted to pursue diplomacy,” she says. “I feel like my skill sets, personality-wise, language skills-wise, communications-wise, and my cultural background fit well with that area of work. And also, just broadly speaking, I’m a problem solver.”