CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — OF the millions of young men and women settling into college dorms this month, one of the most unlikely is Abdisamad Adan, a 21-year-old beginning his freshman year at Harvard. Some of his 18 siblings are illiterate and never went even to first grade, and he was raised without electricity or indoor plumbing by an illiterate grandmother in a country that doesn’t officially exist.
Yet he excelled as he studied by candlelight, and he’s probably the only person in Harvard Yard who knows how to milk a camel.
Abdisamad is the first undergraduate the Harvard admissions office remembers from Somalia or its parts, at least in the last 30 years of institutional memory. He is from Somaliland, a breakaway republicthat isn’t recognized by any other country (and so doesn’t have a United States embassy to grant him a visa, but that’s another story).
Yet Abdisamad brims with talent and intelligence. He’s a reminder of the fundamental aphorism of our age: Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.
If not for a fluke, Abdisamad acknowledges, he might have joined friends to become part of the tide of migrants making a precarious journey by sea to Europe. How he came instead to Harvard is a tribute to his hard work and intellect, but also to luck, and to an American hedge fund tycoon who, bored by finance, moved to Somaliland and set up a school for brilliant kids who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance.
The financier, Jonathan Starr, had an aunt who married a man from Somaliland, and he was charmed by stories about its deserts and nomads. So in 2008, after running his own hedge fund and burning out, Starr took a trip to Somaliland.
His friends thought he was nuts for what happened next: Starr founded an English-language boarding school for the brightest boys and girls from across Somaliland. Called the Abaarso School of Science and Technology, it uses American teachers (paid a pittance) who are willing to work in a country that the State Department recommends avoiding for security reasons. The school is surrounded by a high wall and has armed guards to foil Shabab rebels, and it has an American sensibility: There is a girls basketball team, which is so unusual in Somaliland that the team members have almost no one to play against.
This campus is where Abdisamad blossomed.
He says his parents divorced before he was born, so his grandmother raised him. He spent an average of two hours a day fetching water and had no one pushing him at home, but still performed superbly at a local primary school. In national eighth grade exams, he scored second in the entire country.
The problem was that while primary school tuition had been $1 a month, a good high school would be at least $40 a month. His grandmother couldn’t afford that, and in any case she didn’t really see why he needed high school. No one in his family had ever graduated from high school.
But then Abdisamad was accepted at Abaarso, which is flexible about tuition: If a promising student can’t pay, Starr looks the other way. So Abdisamad began ninth grade at Abaarso, struggling at first because classes were in English, which he didn’t speak. And Abdisamad’s grandmother was displeased that he was spending his time in the classroom rather than helping the family.
“She was definitely not happy in the beginning,” Abdisamad remembered. “She asked me, ‘Are you starting to hate us? Are you falling in love with Americans?’ ”
He quickly learned English, however, and after three years won a scholarship to study at the Masters School, a college prep school, in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. The year in Dobbs Ferry was an adventure — it took a while for Abdisamad to figure out vending machines — but he thrived and decided to apply to Harvard.
His admission to Harvard was treated as a national cause for celebration. Somaliland’s president invited him for a meeting, and Abdisamad became a local hero. His grandmother hadn’t heard of Harvard but came to be proud of her grandson and appreciate that education had its uses.
On arrival at Harvard, Abdisamad found himself with a single room that was about as big as the room he had previously shared with up to five other students. He didn’t have sheets, but another student lent him some. His major problem was how to activate his new debit card: “I need a phone to activate it,” he explained, “and I don’t have a phone.”
Then there was his orientation at Harvard. “They were teaching us things that people don’t talk about back at home. Sexual harassment. Condoms. Consent,” he recalled, and then raised his eyebrows. “It was all very interesting.”
Abdisamad plans to return to Somaliland and work with young people, and then perhaps pursue a career in politics; he hints that he’d like to be president some day.
What’s indisputable is that access to a good school transformed Abdisamad’s life. Six of his brothers and sisters are getting no education at all, and some of those migrants you’ve been seeing on television drowning in their desperate struggle to get to Europe are from Somaliland.
One reason Somalia and its former parts have struggled for decades is lack of education, particularly for girls: Illiteracy correlates to huge families, to extremism, to violence and civil warfare. World leaders will be gathering this month at the United Nations to review the status of development goals, including one that by now all children would be able to complete primary school, and to approve new ones. There has indeed been enormous progress in global education, yet even today some 59 million children around the globe aren’t enrolled even in elementary school (and tens of millions more are enrolled but learn nothing).
That’s the context in which Starr’s school — and Abdisamad’s success — should offer inspiration. And it’s not just Abdisamad. The Abaarso School has an astonishing 26 other alumni at U.S. universities, including M.I.T., George Washington University, Grinnell, Oberlin, Holy Cross and Amherst.
There aren’t many high schools in the world with 45 students in a grade that are so successful in getting alumni into top colleges, let alone one where students speak English as a foreign language and often grew up in poverty. The Abaarso student at M.I.T., Mubarik Mohamoud, a junior studying electrical engineering, grew up as a nomadic herder raising camels, goats and sheep in an area with no schools; he began his education at a madrasa.
“Being smart is universal,” says Mubarik. “It’s just that resources are not dispersed.”