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Rebecca Elias Abboud | University Communications

Credit: University of Pennsylvania-Unive

Some Penn students might hop on a train to New York following graduation, but College seniors Antoinette Zoumanigui and Selamawit Bekele will set up shop in Senegal to establish a school in a community outside its capital, Dakar.

The two seniors received the President’s Engagement Prize and plan to use the $100,000 cash prize to launch Project Y.V.E.T.A. and continue the work they started at Penn.

The school’s mission is to teach children agricultural and literacy skills, Zoumanigui said, in order to combat a widespread problem in the area. Koranic teachers promise young Senegalese children education in larger cities, but instead abuse and force the children — commonly referred to as talibes — to panhandle for them.

This issue is particularly relevant to Zoumanigui and Bekele, who are from Senegal and Ethiopia. As health and societies majors, Zoumanigui and Bekele bonded during their freshman year over similar social and political issues that exist in both of their home countries.

“We talked about a lot of social issues that lead to health issues,” Bekele said. “We realized that having grown up in two different countries, we knew of these types of traditional education systems that prompted these children to leave their homes.”

The two have worked have worked on different projects over their four years at Penn that focus on spreading awareness of these issues. At the beginning of their sophomore year, they founded the nonprofit Kids of Dakar, which aims “to reach out to local and international audiences to engage” them in a dialogue centered on this issue, especially within the Philadelphia Senegalese community.

Kids of Dakar has hosted a movie screening on campus and has partnered with NGOs and other organizations in Senegal to host feeding and health programs. This past summer, Zoumanigui and Bekele took a CURF-funded trip to Senegal, and that’s when their idea for Project Y.V.E.T.A. was born.

They reached out to history professor and Senegal native Cheikh Babou, who “is an expert when it comes to West African history and its relation to Islam,” Bekele said. He became their mentor for Project Y.V.E.T.A. and facilitated partnerships that they formed with organizations in Senegal.

With the years of connections, partnerships and projects built leading up to Y.V.E.T.A., Babou said he believes that the work they have done and the partnerships they have formed will lead to change beyond the scope of the school.

“Even after the project has ended,” Babou said, “there is a possibility of continuing to build on the experience, the infrastructure and on the knowledge that the project [helped] generate — to continue to work after [they are] no longer around and funding [is] not coming anymore.”