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Student’s experience establishing a school in Africa leads to social work study

Julia Tarr has followed a few paths in her life many have questioned. But for Tarr, a first-year student in the School of Social Work’s Triangle Distance Education Program, and a Melvarene

Johnson Adair Scholar, each step taken has been more about “staying true” to herself than answering the doubts or fears of others.

After all, consider the following: As a human studies undergrad at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, Tarr worked long hours at various odd jobs just so she could raise enough money to travel to Guinea to study drumming, music and culture. Once there, she fell so in love with traditional West African dance, she decided to form a dance company in the United States to teach the art. Then there was the time Tarr jumped at the chance to start an elementary school in Guinea to help educate refugee children from Sierra Leone.

“I know it didn’t make a lot of sense to other people,” Tarr said of her work abroad from late 1998 through 2006. “And yet, it was the only thing that made sense to me. That’s the only way I know how to explain it. It was an all-consuming interest.”

So was helping others in need–a fact made clear the day her future husband, Jeremy, who was also studying in Guinea, stumbled upon a group of children on the front porch of a shack studying English. All refugees from Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war, the children were practicing pronunciations for their teacher.

The couple felt an immediate connection to the makeshift school and began volunteering. But they quickly realized they needed to do more and shifted their efforts toward raising money for a more permanent structure for the students.

“We realized that there was a very active drum and dance community in the United States that wanted to support a project like the school,” Tarr explained. “Americans dedicated to learning West African culture were very motivated to give back by contributing to the school and helping to train teachers. “

Indeed, the response was overwhelming. Over seven years, the couple developed a nonprofit foundation and helped raise thousands of dollars for what would become Sabu International School. Donations supported building rent, teacher training, student tuition, salaries, books and other supplies. The school quickly grew from a little more than a dozen students to over 100 children in kindergarten through sixth grades.

“We even developed a curriculum in French and English so that the students who graduated could matriculate into Guinean schools, where they spoke French,” she said.

According to the school’s current website, Sabu International eventually grew from one classroom to a K-12 school spread across two buildings “with 470 eager students, 20 staff members, and a group of involved parents.” Sabu still serves refugees from Sierra Leone, as well as children from Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Gambia, Liberia, and Nigeria.

Although no longer actively involved with the school, Tarr remains proud of her role in its development and success. “It does still exist, and I find comfort in that,” she said. “Even though our lives really shifted, it is something positive that is lasting.”

The decision to leave West Africa in 2006 was the beginning of a new chapter in Tarr’s life. She moved with her husband to Chapel Hill so that he could pursue a law degree at UNC, while Tarr settled into her role as a new mom. The couple has 5-year-old twins (a boy and a girl) and a daughter just under age 2. Having children was transforming personally and professionally, Tarr said.

“My interest today is very different than 10 years ago,” she said. “My own experience starting a family really has inspired me to work with women. There are many challenges that can occur during that time of life that can have ramifications long into the future for both the parents and the children. That phase of life has captured my interest for my future work as a social worker.”

The birth of her youngest daughter also inspired Tarr to consider an MSW degree. Although she’s still weighing options for practice, she’s interested in integrated and direct care.

Since enrolling in the social work program, Tarr has learned to recognize how much of her own privilege enabled her to work in Guinea. At the same time, she remains grateful for the experience as well as the micro and macro lessons learned in developing a school and nonprofit from scratch. That earlier work provided the professional direction she needed, she said.

“I also learned so much in starting a family,” she added. “Despite some difficulties and the winding road it took us down, I arrived here and feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”

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