A Long Way from Home

Monday, May 7, 2018

by Molly Crossan Harty

Freshly appointed with an interdisciplinary doctor of educational leadership degree from Saint Joseph’s University, Saye Clarence Gono Jr. has come a long way.

A long way from his home in Liberia, ravaged by civil war.

A long way from his mother, whom he hasn’t seen in 26 years.

A long way from the cramped ceiling in which he and others hid in silence, pressed torso-to-torso, as soldiers hunted below them in a genocidal quest. 

Despite the horror he’s witnessed in his long journey to SJU graduation, Gono says, “I am very ambitious. I do not get discouraged.”

Gono grew up near St. Mary’s Mission in Sanniquellie, Liberia, where his father worked as a handyman and painter to support his family of five. He helped his dad during school breaks and caught the attention of Sister Cecile Caouette, a Franciscan Missionary of Mary. In appreciation for their work ethic and because Gono excelled in his studies, she paid for him to finish 8th through 12th grade at the mission’s school. 

A love of math and science ignited a passion in Gono to become a doctor. Before she left for new assignments in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, the gentle yet determined Sister Cecile urged the Catholic bishop to provide financial support for the eager student to attend college.

Soon, Gono found himself en route to one of West Africa’s oldest institutions of higher learning, the University of Liberia in Monrovia, on a full scholarship. It was 1990.

In his first semester, the country’s civil war, which had begun the previous year, ripped through the land. One evening, soldiers for Liberian Head of State Samuel Doe, a military leader, stormed a Don Bosco compound (a Catholic institution) where Gono and many others had hidden away. Priests there delayed the soldiers from killing them, and the militants moved on to another center at a Lutheran church, slaughtering hundreds of others. Later, the soldiers returned to the compound in the middle of the night to finally eliminate those who remained. Terrified, Gono and several others squeezed together, held aloft behind ceiling panels. Not a sound escaped from the many babies present. He attributes their survival to divine intervention.

Intending to return to his family, he left school and discovered that his mother, brother and sister had scattered to seek safety in other villages. His father had lost his life in the course of the civil crisis. 

A refugee, Gono headed for the Ivory Coast, toward a camp where Sister Cecile was working with the international Catholic aid organization Caritas. Later, she put him to work registering new refugees who waited in long lines for cups of rice or sardines at the camp. He saw the devastating effects of war and poverty in their eyes and on their bodies. “I was working with people who had lost everything,” says Gono, whose only possessions were the clothes on his back, a pen and some paper.

He did have Sister Cecile on his side, and as his desire for higher learning intensified — with a new goal of helping his countrymen through diplomacy and education instead of medicine — she stepped in again to help.

Gono had been writing to universities, in search of acceptance and financial aid. When the head of the United Nations bureau in the Ivory Coast visited the camp, Sister Cecile made sure Gono had a chance to present his case for educational support. 

He won a full scholarship and departed the camp for the United States International University in Kenya, where he remained throughout the four years he spent earning his bachelor’s degree. The trust Sister Cecile had placed in Gono stayed with him. “She saw something in me,” he says of the nun, who liked people who “worked hard and didn’t lie or steal.” He looked forward to the day he could see her again, degree in hand, to express his profound gratitude.

She was gone when he returned to the Caritas camp. At some point during his time away, Sister Cecile had left for Canada, her birthplace, where she died from cancer. 

Gono moved on, alone and homeless, amid war and poverty. He survived by doing odd jobs and living with friends. 

He dreamed of pursuing additional education and continued to research the possibilities. Meanwhile, he became heavily involved in the church, following the advice of a Christian evangelist, Brou Herve, to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Gono recalls Herve telling him, “The Lord wants you to go to the United States, develop yourself, come back one day and lead.”

Eventually, as the war escalated, Gono would apply for a visa and fly to the U.S. in 2002 on the generosity of a family friend. He worked in personal care positions, again living with friends, trying to make enough money to survive. After taking a few classes at the University of Pennsylvania, he was unable to continue for financial reasons, and he discovered SJU’s organization development and leadership master’s degree. 

“I do not get discouraged,” Gono affirms. “God is the best.”

With full tuition support through federal aid, he enrolled in 2009 and graduated in 2011.

The words of the evangelist in the Ivory Coast were never out of his mind, says Gono — who had become an ordained preacher in the U.S. — and he decided to go back to school again, for SJU’s doctorate in educational leadership, so that he could gain expertise to improve the African school system. This past March, he successfully defended his dissertation, and in May, he will cross the stage at commencement, having achieved the apex of higher learning in his field.

“I love St. Joe’s,” Gono says. “It’s a learning center. The professors really work with you and want you to get involved.”

Robert Palestini, Ed.D. ’63, ’67 (M.A.), an associate professor of education, chaired the committee for Gono’s dissertation, titled “Reflections of U.S. undergraduate college students on the effects of remedial education on their college curriculum access, learning and achievement.”

“Saye should be admired for his courage to assimilate into a new culture in the pursuit of further education and his extraordinary persistence in overcoming any obstacle,” says Palestini, who describes him as an “exemplary student and person.” 

While Gono says, “There’s no country in the world where you can do your best and find your own value like America,” he intends to return to Liberia before the end of the year, gain teaching or research experience in a university environment and ultimately move into a leadership position in education. He says few people in Liberia have doctoral degrees in educational leadership. 

And there’s one other item at the top of his list when he gets to Liberia: He plans to reunite with his mother, to whom he remains grateful for sending him to school from an early age during what he calls “difficult times.”

“I started at St. Mary’s and finished at Saint Joseph’s,” he says. “See how wonderful it is? That’s the work of God.”

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