RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Medina Korda’s job is to help educate children in parts of the globe where the odds are often stacked against academic success.
The programs she administers as a policy analyst at RTI International have helped thousands of 5- to 7-year olds learn to read, a crucial stepping stone as they strive to climb out of poverty.
But recently Korda has brought that work to a more personal level. On a visit to a Liberian school in 2010, she vowed to help a girl who had just learned to read and boldly proclaimed she would go to college – even though most girls in her village leave school for arranged marriages as teenagers.
The girl’s determination struck Korda. A Bosnian native who lived through the siege of her city, Korda recalled an aid worker who had reached out to her by giving her English lessons.
“I saw myself in her,” Korda says of 10-year-old Memai Sheriff. “She needed a break.”
So Korda, 35, struck a deal with Memai’s family: allow her to stay in school, and Korda would pay for Memai’s education all the way through college.
Korda, who recently completed Duke University’s documentary studies program, made a short film about their story that won an international award earlier this month.
She says she realizes the limited impact of helping one girl; unlike her policy work, her efforts can’t be expanded on a larger scale. But she says their relationship keeps her ultimate goal ever-present.
“I entered this profession because I wanted to help,” she says. “And now I have a very personal example of what it is I do, how my life’s mission can help change someone’s life.”
Her colleagues weren’t surprised by the gesture. Amber Gove, director of teaching and learning for RTl’s international projects, described Korda as a “master planner” who has helped create tools to teach reading that are spreading across the globe.
But Gove says behind Korda’s precision lies a commitment to her work made stronger by her turbulent past. And no project has meant more to her than Liberia, where the needs are great.
“It’s our daily job to help on a massive scale, but it’s been particularly impactful for Medina to help that one child more deeply,” Gove says, “to see the real effect on a child’s life.”
Surviving in Bosnia
Korda grew up in a well-to-do family of Bosnian Muslims in a town near Sarajevo, then part of Yugoslavia. When she was 12, her mother died. When she was 14, the Bosnian War began, transforming her comfortable life into a daily battle for survival.
Her town was shelled relentlessly for three and a half years, during which the family lived without electricity. Her older sister fled the country, and an early boyfriend was killed in the fighting.
She remembers her father, who worked as a logistics officer for the military during the war, leaving her with a gun, two hand grenades, and the chilling instructions not to be taken alive.
“All you’re told is you’re being shot at because you’re Muslim and because of your name,” Korda says. “As a kid, you don’t understand that.”
International aid was a key part of the family’s survival, bringing much-needed food and supplies – and planting the seed in Korda’s mind to spend her own career helping others.
Soon after the war ended, she went to college at the University of Sarajevo, where she studied Slavic languages but was increasingly drawn toward public policy. She worked for UNICEF during college, and after graduation, the European Union.
Korda came to the United States in 2001, when she won a prestigious scholarship to study public policy at Duke University. She chose to focus on education, and worked on international development projects for the George Soros Foundation before coming to RTI in 2005.
Her work in education at RTI has been fruitful. Seeing that gaps in early reading skills were slowing international education efforts, she and her colleagues created an assessment tool that allowed them to better judge how well students were learning to read in the early grades.
They found that one in three students could not read by second grade in several African countries – a fact that helped push international efforts to focus on early reading skills. Without those skills, further education is difficult.
“When children reach grades five or six without learning to read, you’re creating this bulge of young people who are not educated and not ready to enter the economy in the way that it’s needed,” Korda says. “But if you have them reading in grades four and five, a lot of doors open for them.”
Korda’s team, funded largely by the U.S. Agency for International Development, developed methods of teaching reading that could be adapted to any language, along with daily lesson plans, textbooks and other resources.
She regularly visits the countries to check the program’s projects, and in recent years has been documenting her trips with video footage that she uses to illustrate her team’s work abroad.
It was on one such trip that she met Memai, whose school had invited Korda’s team out to witness their success in teaching students to read. Korda brought a camera crew to get footage of the remote school.
She was about to leave for the first day when Memai walked up to her, stated her name, and said, as Korda recalls, “I couldn’t read and now I can and I want to go to college.”
The girl’s unusual confidence stuck with Korda through the night, and the next day she sought out Memai’s uncle, with whom Memai was living while she went to school.
“He said he thought she’d never learn to read,” Korda says. “He said they were just going to give her a couple of more years.”
Instead, they shook on Korda’s deal, which includes an annual allowance of $100 to cover expenses.
Korda is also talking with the family about sending her to a high school in the country’s capital to give her a better chance of getting into college, a move that would cost Korda roughly $2,000 a year.
Memai talked about her dreams, which include becoming a doctor. Korda knows how distant that dream is, but she remains hopeful after finding on this visit that Memai is still in school.
“They’re keeping their promise,” she says. “And I’ll keep mine.”
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