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Tigard High teacher McKenzie Coulson strengthens ties to Tanzania

Coulson supports African school where she taught in 2009

COURTESY MCKENZIE COULSON - The graduating class of Orkeeswa Secondary school (Class of 2013) in Monduli, Tanzania, sings a graduation song that they wrote themselves. For five years now, students have come to know McKenzie Coulson as an English and leadership teacher at Tigard High School, but that wasn't always the case.

Back in 2009, Coulson took her show on the road and did so in a big way, traveling more than 9,000 miles to teach English in the Tanzanian village of Monduli.

Coulson, 30, working with the Indigenous Education Foundation of Tanzania, became an English teacher at the Orkeeswa Secondary School near the rural village of Monduli for six months.COURTESY MCKENZIE COULSON - Tigard teacher McKenzie Coulson (second from right) stands with students (left to right) Suzanne Wilnard, Neema Ezekiel and Eliapenda Joseph at Orkeeswa Secondary school in Monduli, Tanzania, in 2013.

“I really wanted to do a different kind of teaching,” Coulson said, “before I settled down into a (permanent) position.“

It was a trip that impacted Coulson's life, undoubtedly bettered the lives of her students — both those in Africa and those at Tigard — and created a connection she still nurtures and supports today.

Coulson, a Lake Oswego native who taught at Canby High School before her time in Tanzania, will host an open house fundraiser on Saturday to support Orkeeswa Secondary School. The event will take place from 3 to 8 p.m. at Coulson's parents' house at 585 Sunnyhill Drive in Lake Oswego. For more on that, see the sidebar at the bottom of the story.COURTESY MCKENZIE COULSON - Tigard teacher McKenzie Coulson (left) stands with students (left to right) shares a smile with Nickson Obedi at Orkeeswa Secondary school in Monduli, Tanzania, in 2009.

Back when Coulson taught at Orkeeswa Secondary in 2009, the school had about 60 students divided into two classes of approximately 30 students each. There is a rigorous application and interview process to get into the school, Coulson said, and students must work hard to be accepted. Though some students don’t know their exact ages because birth certificates aren’t always correct or are missing altogether, Orkeeswa Secondary is roughly the equivalent of an American high school.

That said, there are some distinct differences between American and African high schools. Tanzanian students are often trilingual, taking their country's national academic exams in English, though the Tanzanian official language is Swahili. In addition to English and Swahili, students often speak a local tribal traditional language associated with the Maasai people known commonly as Maa. The students adopt English as a second language and then are expected to learn effectively within that language. In Tanzania, Coulson said, speaking English is the fastest way to a university education and can open many doors.

Tanzania is a country of diverse beauty. It has sweeping plains, like those of Serengeti National Park, with Mount Kilimanjaro looming above. The population lives in a variety of conditions, ranging from desolate areas to emerging cities, and the weather can be extreme. During the wet season, the dry soil takes a much needed drink and the ground’s surface near Monduli becomes slick like ice, Coulson said. While that makes the surface a dangerous hazard to drive and walk upon, students still walk as far as five to 10 miles to attend Orkeeswa Secondary School.

“The students I taught are incredible learners and activists,” Coulson said. “The curriculum is progressive. Student groups have formed on campus. We want to expose these kids to as much as possible while keeping Tanzanian ideals.”

Balancing work, school and the expectations of their families is a primary obstacle for Tanzanian students. Traditionally, Tanzanian girls are often married young and school is secondary to what is considered their primary purpose — being a wife and mother.

Coulson says the biggest difference between Tigard High students and Orkeeswa Secondary students is access. Generally speaking, Coulson adds, students in America have access to an abundance of resources such as higher education, financial resources, and staff and family support.

“At the end of the day, poverty is a very relative term. (Tanzania) is a pretty poor place in the world still, but there’s definitely progress happening,” Coulson said.

Coulson traveled back to Tanzania in the winter of 2013 to attend the graduation ceremony of the students she taught in 2009.

“It was a very sentimental trip, a meaningful trip,” Coulson said. “I hope to return soon.”

In 2013, Orkeeswa Secondary had increased in population to over 200 in the school’s active student body. Coulson and her mother have sponsored two students from Orkeeswa Secondary who have graduated and moved on to higher educations.

Coulson brings her experiences to her Tigard High students and emphasizes the importance that cultural awareness has in education.

“I think one of the biggest things that has become tangible in my classroom is that I really push going out and becoming a citizen of the world,” she said. “Whether that’s studying abroad, taking a trip with their family, signing up for a project or whatever it is that exposes students to people different from themselves. Exposure opens their minds and, hopefully, their hearts.”

How to Help

What: A fundraiser for student scholarships at Orkeeswa Secondary School in Monduli, Tanzania

Where: 585 Sunnyhill Drive in Lake Oswego

When: 3 to 8 p.m. Saturday

Why: The funds will pay for students' places in school, uniforms, food, supplies, teacher salaries, computer and science labs and student services.

Quote: "Most importantly, the scholarships provide students an opportunity to attend school when otherwise they would not be given the chance."

Website: ieftz.org