Dwight Hall Alumna Spotlight: Nadja Umlauf ’22 Launches the Likoni Library Project as Fulbright Scholar

Nadja Umlauf ’22 (left) and a student from Mombasa, Kenya.

After graduating from Yale College last year, Nadja Umlauf ’22 traveled to Kenya on a Fulbright Scholarship, where she is currently an English Teaching Assistant at a high school in Mombasa. For Nadja, this program is a continuation of her passion for teaching, which began in high school. As a senior in Harlem, New York, she worked with low-income, mostly Black and Brown students at charter schools on their reading and writing, and also worked with the Children’s Defense Fund on summer programs that taught about civil rights.

Thus, Nadja already had experience and passion about education when she arrived at Yale. “I came into Yale knowing that I wanted to do service work and social justice work that was specifically focused on education and teaching,” Nadja explained. She quickly joined the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project, a Dwight Hall member group, where she tutored young men at the Manson Youth Institution to help them pass their GED exams, and also became involved with the Jane Matilda Bolin Program, where she helped craft a curriculum centering African and African American studies for New Haven students.

For Nadja, the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) program offered the opportunity to combine her passion for teaching with her interests in African and African American history.

“I felt like the Fulbright Program…was a way that I could continue to do the teaching work I loved, while also learning about a history that was really important to me. And also, [I was] actively taking part in those communities, learning the history through the community rather than just an academic setting.”

Upon arriving in Mombasa, Nadja and the other Fulbright ETAs began speaking with the communities of the two schools they were working with about how they could best support them. Over and over, community members mentioned the lack of books available for students.

“In the schools, [which] serve around 2,000 students, there are virtually no books,” Nadja said. “I have not seen a single book that students have access to—outside of textbooks that they use for class—that…they can read in their free time, borrow, whatever it may be…The teachers were really the ones that raised the idea of building libraries.”

Consequently, Nadja and the other ETAs soon began the Likoni Library Project in an effort to establish libraries for students in Mombasa. They reached out to their connections in the United States, establishing a book drive across various schools in the Northeast, including Yale, the Dalton School in New York City, and a few New York-based education nonprofit organizations. Their goal is to collect 2,000 books, which could then be used to establish English-language libraries in Mombasa.

In particular, the ETAs seek to collect storybooks—the kinds that will spark a lifelong love of reading. “One of the most joyful things about my learning as a young child was the ability to go home, read whatever it was–whether that be Harry Potter or Percy Jackson–and fully immerse myself into those stories,” Nadja shared. “We’re hoping to build a culture of reading among our students and help them develop that love and joy for reading.”

The books will be incorporated into literacy programming at the schools. Nadja described some of the genuine excitement for learning she has already seen when students began reading “The Lottery,” a short story by Shirley Jackson.

“After they do the reading, the students are given a prompt that is optional. They get a candy if they complete it…the prompt for this week was to write their own short story. I just got the booklets back for my students, and I was reading them. They were just incredible. To already see how invested my students are in the programs and how they’re able to use what they’re reading to create their own works while also having joy in both reading and writing has been incredible for me…I think that’s just a small fraction of what’s to come with the project.”

For those interested in getting involved, the Likoni Library Project is accepting donations at Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center until April 28, as well as at various schools across New York. The Project also has a GoFundMe that can be accessed here, and an Amazon wish list can be accessed here. Finally, Nadja emphasized that for those unable to donate, spreading the word about the Project on social media would also be a wonderful way to contribute.

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