A ‘wonderful bridge’ from Africa to Yale

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Esther Soma '16 poses with her parents, residents of South Sudan, and Chris Bradford '00, co-founder of the African Leadership Academy. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

When Esther Soma was struggling with the essay portion of her Yale application, she knew where to turn for help.

A student at the African Leadership Academy (ALA) at the time, she sent her first draft to Chris Bradford ’00, the school’s co-founder and chief executive officer. Bradford urged her to rewrite the essay. He discussed the next draft with her line-by-line over the phone only hours before the application deadline. In the end, Soma completed her essay and was accepted into the Yale College Class of 2016.

“He really came through,” she said. “I was moved by how much he was invested in helping me.”

Bradford was on campus May 23 when Soma, a citizen of South Sudan raised in Kenya, graduated from Yale alongside fellow ALA alumna Kenza Bouhaj, who is from Morocco.

“It’s really exciting for me to see people like Esther and Kenza come to Yale and have so much success,” he said. “It’s especially exciting for me as I’ve had a similar experience as a Yale graduate.”

See more Commencement 2016 stories, photos, videos, and more.

Founded in 2004, ALA is a two-year college preparatory school located in Johannesburg, South Africa. Its core curriculum, based on the Cambridge A Levels, includes components that focus on building leadership and entrepreneurial skills, studying issues relevant to Africa, and encouraging team building and original thinking.  The school enrolls 120 students, aged 16 to 19, annually from across the continent. Forty-five African countries are represented among the school’s 735 graduates, according to ALA’s website.

“We comb Africa every year trying to identify the most promising young people on the continent,” Bradford said. “People who we think are on a trajectory, who we believe with a little support and an opportunity at ALA can go on to have a real transformative impact.”

Bouhaj, a double major in economics and mathematics and global affairs, said ALA provided her with the tools she needed to succeed at Yale.

“ALA prepared me academically, but more importantly, because it stresses leadership, self-reflection, and self-motivation, ALA allowed me to transition to Yale easily,” she said.  “We were encouraged to think about our personal growth and how to achieve our goals and how to seek out resources to help us do that.”   

Soma, who majored in global affairs, said ALA provided a “wonderful bridge” between her high school in Kenya and Yale.

“I loved ALA,” she said. “I feel I can go to any African country and have a friend there.”

Bouhaj and Soma took advantage of the unique opportunities that Yale provides undergraduates.

Bouhaj, who lived in Ezra Stiles College, spent the summer following her sophomore year in Washington, D.C., working at Results for Development, a think tank devoted to reducing poverty and improving living standards in low- and middle-income nations. She also assisted Christopher Udry, the Henry Heinz II Professor of Economics at Yale, on his research to estimate the impact of crop insurance in Ghana.

Kenza Bouhaj ‘16 poses with her parents, who traveled from Morocco for her graduation from Yale.

Soma travelled to Nepal, Jordan, and Chile during the spring semester of her sophomore year to study human rights issues. Both Bouhaj and Soma were undergraduate liaisons to the Yale World Fellows Program.

Both said ALA contained a strong Yale element. The school’s faculty included several Yale graduates. Bouhaj, who grew up speaking French, required English lessons when she started at ALA. One of her English teachers was a recent Yale graduate.  The Yale Concert Band and the Spizzwinks(?) a cappella group performed at ALA while Soma and Bouhaj were students there.

Eleven ALA graduates have gained admission to Yale over the past decade. Last year, ALA alum Arkanjelo Paul Lorem, a native of South Sudan, was a member of Yale’s 2015 graduating class.

Bradford said the Yale community has provided generous support to the ALA.

“Yale graduates have been immensely supportive of our work as board members, as colleagues, and as funders,” Bradford said. “Members of the university, both faculty and students, have been great because we have been able to reach out to them for support and ideas.”   

Bradford said his experience at Yale and Stanford University, where he earned an MBA and a master’s degree in education, convinced him of the critical role that educational institutions play in shaping societies. He founded ALA with Fred Swaniker, a classmate at Stanford Business School.

“We built ALA with the idea that we were establishing an institution that would identify potential leaders, but more importantly, also develop a network of leaders who would work together throughout their lives to create lasting peace and shared prosperity and allow the students to shape the continent in which they want to live and work,” he said. “I think of ALA as not only a two-year intellectual and leadership development experience but also as the hub for a lifetime of learning and connections.”

“ALA prepared me academically, but more importantly, because it stresses leader-ship, self-reflection, and self-motivation, ALA allowed me to transition to Yale easily.”

— Kenza Bouhaj ’16

The experiences of Soma and Bouhaj at Yale reflect ALA’s emphasis on building and maintaining connections. Bouhaj built close relationships with a couple of host families in the area that she met through ALA.

“They’ve become my family,” she said.

While at ALA, Soma served as chairwoman of the school’s student government and often worked closely with Bradford. They stayed in touch throughout her four years at Yale. Both were freshman counselors at Jonathan Edwards College.

“In essence, she lived in my old dorm room,” he said.

Bradford helped to arrange for Soma’s parents and brother to travel to the United States from South Sudan to attend commencement. He joined them at Jonathan Edwards College for Soma’s degree ceremony.

“It means the world to me,” she said of having her family attend commencement. “It is the fulfillment of a dream, and Yale has made it happen in a lot of ways.”

Soma won the Edgar Boell Prize, which is awarded annually to a senior in Jonathan Edwards College for contributions to the college’s community. She will spend the next couple of weeks in the United States with her parents. They will visit Washington, D.C., and travel to Omaha, Nebraska, to see relatives. She has not decided on her next step, but is searching for opportunities in the United States and South Sudan.

Bouhaj, whose parents came to Yale for commencement, graduated with distinction in both of her majors. (Bradford visited with her before the commencement procession and after she received her diploma.) She will return to her hometown, Fez, which is Morocco’s second-largest city, before moving to New York City to take a position with McKinsey & Company consulting firm. While she has not set any long-term plans, she said, she would like to return to Morocco and dreams of one day running a school or university in that region.

Bradford does not hesitate when asked to cite the qualities that make Bouhaj and Soma strong leaders.

“They both possess optimism,” he said. “They relentlessly believe that they can create a bright future regardless of what is in front of them.  Another quality is the willingness is to work hard. A third is an ability to connect with people from all different cultures. When you combine those with their natural intelligence, they’ve just been immensely successful.”

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