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Sea Change

New Whitworth grad seeks to build leaders at home

By Terry Rayburn Mitchell, '93

"All at sea" used to mean "confused; unsure how to proceed." Interesting, then, that for Jessica Razanadrakoto, '16, a sea voyage provided both direction and resources for her first post-college adventure - and for a new way of educating young students in her home country.

Razanadrakoto, a small, dynamic young woman with a high-wattage smile, was born in Madagascar - the world's fourth-largest island, located 250 miles off the East African coast, in the Indian Ocean - where her parents own a hotel they built themselves. Her father, who never had access to higher education and had to leave school early, promised her that if she studied hard and did well, he would send her to America, a place she'd hardly heard of before she was 10 years old, to complete her education.

She did study hard, and she excelled. When she was 14, her parents sent her to Seattle to finish high school, and - after some shuffling between high-school classes and high schools themselves - she came to Whitworth as a member of the Class of 2017. She graduated May 22, a year early.

Right away, her future fell into place. "My first semester at Whitworth, I saw a Semester at Sea poster," Razanadrakoto says. "The words that took my breath away were ‘Journey around the world, travel on a ship, and take classes for a semester!'" Convinced, because she yearned to see the world, that "this was meant to be," she applied. SAS agreed; she sailed in spring 2015.

The SAS ship visits 12 countries after stints of two-14 days on the water, and once it chugged out of its first port of call, Razanadrakoto became interested in an onboard competition through The Resolution Project, which recruits undergraduate students and helps them "implement their ideas and develop as socially responsible adults" ( Razanadrakoto and two SAS colleagues, Laura Patterson (University of Louisville) and Sophie Connot (University of Nebraska, Lincoln), got together, began envisioning a leadership camp for young people in Madagascar, and knuckled down to the business of winning that competition. After weeks of deep thought, hard work, late nights, and a very well-received presentation, they did.

The camp, named Fihavanana - a word that encompasses the Malagasy concept of kinship, friendship, and goodwill between physical and spiritual beings - aims to empower and develop Madagascar's youth through interactive, immersive, and hands-on activities," Razanadrakoto says. Her home country's education system is based on memorization and repetition, and though this model works for her in areas where details are important, she says, "it truly has been challenging" in terms of her confidence and her fear of being judged  for giving wrong answers. She, Patterson and Connot want to mitigate that fear in their campers and to give them the self-assurance of leaders. And they choose to go about that in a new way - through teaching leadership skills not taught in Madagascar's schools.

The camp, to be built on land provided by the mayor of Razanadrakoto's hometown, Moramanga, will open in summer 2017. Each day of camp will ideally include sports, arts and crafts, other creative activities, a shared meal, and discussion about what students' new knowledge means to their lives. Students will range in age from 10-15, and each session of the camp will last two weeks. (See the camp's official website at

Once the camp is established, Razanadrakoto sees herself partnering with the Peace Corps to build a school in her hometown, and "in 10 years, I hope to be involved in the Ministry of Education, helping to improve the Malagasy education system." For now, she looks forward to going home this summer to "my fantasy, my library, my office, my museum, my room, my home, my ocean, my island: Madagascar."


Ron Pyle, Gordon Jackson and Jessica Razanadrakoto smile for a photo together.One of the things Jessica Razanadrakoto enjoyed most about her education of mind and heart was the opportunity to get to get to know Whitworth's faculty members. Asked which professors had the most impact on her during her time at the university, Razanadrakoto mentions two communication studies professors: Gordon Jackson, now emeritus (right, above), and Ron Pyle. "They have been such inspiring professors, and they have helped me grow in so many ways, from my decision-making to my spiritual life," she says. Her mentors have enjoyed her friendship and have been impressed with her dedication and industry. Jackson, her first-year advisor, says, "I've been struck by her zeal in seeking every opportunity to learn, to explore leadership opportunities, and generally to take the fullest advantage of everything her Whitworth education has offered her." Pyle, after mentioning Razanadrakoto's courage, realism, and creativity, says admiringly of her, "She is deeply committed to the welfare of others, and she is especially dedicated to serving the people of Madagascar."


Information from the article "Student earns grant to start Madagascar camp," in The Whitworthian, was used in this article. Permission to use this information was granted by the article's author, Parker Postlewait, '16.