Sarah Lipson, a WorldTeach volunteer in the Marshall Islands, writes about some of the challenges her senior students face as they pursue their hopes for college.




After much negotiation and the support of faculty and staff at the College of the Marshall Islands, Majuro’s March 5th TOEFL registration was re-opened last week to accommodate five more Marshall Islands High School students eager to take the test. For almost all students who attend colleges and universities off-island, the financial support of the RMI Scholarship Board is essential. To be eligible for this scholarship, students must score a 500 on the paper-based TOEFL, a cut-off my seniors are perhaps all too aware of after a presentation by the Scholarship Board at College Club. This three-digit number is now associated with freedom, independence and innumerable intangibles of life and learning outside of the RMI. Yet when the Scholarship Board representative passed around a sign-up sheet with columns for student names, academic interests and desired college choice, many of the students I have been working with since September wrote simply “off-island” or “U.S.” in the third column. This lack of specificity has me worried…


It is perhaps acceptable in the early stages of a college search for American students to name a state or states where they are interested in future study, but to list an entire country or even worse, provide an answer that implies enthusiasm for anywhere but here, is alarming. As an aside, this is one of many reasons why access programs for first-generation college students begin in the 8th or 9th grade and further motivation for my college preparation curriculum to begin next fall at MIHS. To assuage my current concerns, I reasoned that all college decisions are made arbitrarily, to some extent. “I just had a feeling when I stepped onto this campus”, is an acceptable explanation for why someone spends four years of his or her life at a specific institution. Academic programs, geography, demographics, can only get one so far in limiting the vast options for higher education and for most, the decision is one of fit, an elusive determination often made while touring the campus quad or dormitory, asking is this the place for me? By and large, students from the Marshall Islands do not have the opportunity to tour college campuses, to calculate their future happiness with any real perspective.


I often compare the size of a large college to the population of Majuro, a statistic that alarms the students. When they say they want a small college, they typically assume that this adjective would encompass no more than 200 students. I have had to readjust their expectations while balancing my biases. As the group of roughly twenty college-hopeful MIHS seniors dive further into their college application processes, I am a bit lost as to appropriate advising methods. My suggestions are often taken as the word of some all-knowing deity (if only this were true): I found a community college in California that has a program I think you will be interested in. Before the webpage loads, the student is planning his or her future at said school. Now is anything but the time to slow down though I am having to caution several of these talented students to step back, a practice I am often too stubborn and distracted to follow myself.