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Student journeys from Sierra Leone to Penn State Berks

It's a long way from Sierra Leone to Penn State Berks, but that's the journey that first-year student Foday Sheriff has taken, and he's not finished yet.

Sheriff's parents came to the United States from the area of Sierra Leone that was affected by the "blood diamond" wars. They fled the region, but his father returned and his mother followed a few years later, leaving Sheriff to live with an aunt in Philadelphia, who at times had more than seven other children living in the same house.

"Southwest Philadelphia was like Sierra Leone with all the violence and guns," Sheriff explains.

Sheriff's aunt made a living taking care of the elderly, often working nights. But she didn't have to worry about Sheriff or the other children in her care since she instilled the value of hard work and the importance of staying out of trouble.

"As long as you know who you are and what you want, you can say 'no' to anything," Sheriff states. "I know if I work hard toward what I want, I will succeed."

Sheriff graduated from high school in 2007, while many of his classmates dropped out-or worse-were killed as a result of gang violence. Yet when he tried to apply for financial aid to attend college, he was denied because he did not have any documentation about his parents, who had returned to Sierra Leone.

So Sheriff took a job at the Philadelphia Airport, working on the baggage ramp. There he met a coworker who told him about the ASPIRE program at Penn State Berks.

The ASPIRE program offers admission consideration to students who demonstrate the potential to be successful students, but who may require specialized and structured academic support services. The program is for Pennsylvania residents who are freshmen applicants.

Sheriff met with the ASPIRE program coordinator Yuriko Beaman, and he enrolled at Penn State Berks in the fall of 2009.

During his first semester, Sheriff continued to work full-time while taking classes and he still managed to make the Dean's List.

He comments that he has taken an interest in anatomy and physiology, due in part to one of his professors, Dr. Susan Monk.

"Dr. Monk made the class so interesting," he explains. "She's my motivation. Certain people make their mark on your life."

Sheriff is majoring in Occupational Therapy, and eventually he plans to apply to medical school, yet another leg on his journey to success.
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