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When Orange County, Calif., freshman Ansley Bridges walked into an Ethiopian classroom at the age of 13 and saw students without school supplies, she knew she had to do something.
This experience six years ago was the spark that created an Ethiopian tutoring service that would transform lives.
“It changes your heart,” Bridges said. “I didn’t know how you could learn without textbooks. They just sat on benches listening to a teacher. In America, we have everything we could possibly need, but they didn’t even have the bare necessities.”
Bridges said her first mission trip was an eye-opener, just as her parents had intended. Bridges said her parents took her to Ethiopia to grasp the reality that the rest of the world is not always as sunny as California.
Upon returning from Ethiopia, Bridges started a book drive at her local elementary and middle schools and sent more than 5,000 books to those same Ethiopian school children sitting on benches with nothing to read. Now they have a library.
But Bridges did not stop there.
After attending a women’s conference in Ethiopia in 2010, she said she learned how the school system worked and was shocked to learn about the grave disadvantages young girls faced.
According to the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors, public school in Ethiopia is free, but tests in the 10th and 12th grades determine not only a student’s eligibility to continue on with their education but in what field they will study.
The real disadvantage is that those who fail the 10th grade Ethiopian General School Leaving Certificate Examination never get to take the 12th grade exit exam that places students in college.
Students who fail are dismissed from school and have to learn on their own. They are still eligible to retake the exam, but Bridges said after missing years of school the odds are not in their favor, especially since the exams are in English. Most students speak Amharic, the national language.
“If they fail, they usually just do some type of manual labor and never go back to school,” Bridges said. “When I heard only 30 percent of girls pass the [12th grade] exam and only 20 percent go to college, I was shocked.”
Bridges said she knew what the girls needed because it was the same thing she needed in high school — tutoring. She made the suggestion to her parents in 2011 and from there Power in Knowledge [PinK Girls] was born.
The tutoring service PinK is offered at four campuses in Ethiopia. The campuses belong to Christian organizations that allow tutors to use the buildings on Saturdays, though PinK is not officially a Christian organization itself.
If the tutoring service were officially considered a Christian effort, many Muslim families would not allow their daughters to attend. Some students already attend the class in secret. Adding the Christian factor would only escalate the danger, Bridges said.
From 15 students on the first day to 150 students currently, the organization has continued to grow and is funded by donations and Bridges’ family.
For every student, the organization requires a $420 sponsorship to cover the costs of books and staff wages for one year.
Bridges’ family sponsors half the students. Every student in the PinK program has passed their exit exams and are currently at one of the 22 universities in Ethiopia.
Zelalem Tadele, the project manager of PinK Girls, works with the Ethiopian students. As an Ethiopian himself, he knows how hard it can be for girls to get a fair shot at an education.
“It is really the pioneer here in Ethiopia,” Tadele wrote in an email to the Lariat. “Female students… cannot express their opinions, feelings, etc. in classrooms compared with male students.”
Tadele said the changes by PinK Girls are felt around all of Ethiopia as the importance of female education is brought to light. Bridges and Tadele work together to hire the tutoring staff.
Bridges said the main requirement to work with PinK is a passionate belief that women are the future of Ethiopia. Bridges said this is why she tries to hire Ethiopian and college-educated women when possible to demonstrate the possibility of a strong future for all women.
When Bridges is not working in Ethiopia because of her classes at Baylor, PinK’s executive director, Julie Fields, is Bridges’ direct line of communication for the program.
Bridges continues to check in every opportunity she gets. Though working with PinK has meant missing an entire semester last year and not declaring a major yet, Bridges said PinK is where her heart and focus are right now.
She said she cannot stand to be away from those students and staff that have become part of her family.
As PinK grows, Bridges said she hopes volunteers and donors take notice of the organization and choose to get involved either with her efforts or those of other Ethiopian based services similar to hers.
During the summer, PinK offers an English camp dedicated to teaching girls the language, and Bridges said it would be a great mission trip for Baylor students.
Those interested should visit pinkgirl.org.
“I tell people about these girls and show them pictures, but it’s not the same,” Bridges said. “You have to meet them and see how lovely they are. People tell me ‘You’ve done so much and you’re only 19,’ but these girls in Ethiopia are the ones sitting in class, learning and working hard. They’re the impressive ones.”