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Faith and determination lifts Malagasy SFCC graduate out of poverty

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Faith and determination lifts Malagasy SFCC graduate out of poverty

News Story by John McCallum | FāVS News

It’s said faith can do many things.

There may be no better proof of that than Tongasoa Jefferson Julianot Rakotomalala. Born into poverty on the island nation of Madagascar, Rakotomalala — through his faith in God — managed to overcome many obstacles. He did so to not only study in the United States at Spokane Falls Community College but to graduate this month and continue his education with the intent of one day returning to his country.

“Everything happens for a reason — God’s doing it,” Rakotomalala said in a May 23 interview about his journey. “God is closing a door for a reason, now, he’s opening another door.”

For Amber McKenzie, SFCC assistant dean of Global Education and Strategic Partnerships, Rakotomalala even being in the U.S. is only because of “miracle after miracle,” the least of which was a 48-hour flight to get to Spokane in the first place.

“Most students have family resources,” she said. “He’s very unique in that he does not come from a family of means.”

Rakotomalala has never let this status get in the way of his plans for something better, for himself, his family and for his country.

“The chances of me being here are less than 2%,” he said in an SFCC news release. “I’m so grateful here at Spokane Falls because I’m living my dreams.”

Experiencing perpetual poverty

Rakotomalala was born in Moramanga, a town he said is located four hours east of the nation’s capital of Antananarivo down a road that is “getting bad.” While only 250 miles off the East Africa coast, according to Britannica.com, the people of Madagascar identify more with the people of Indonesia over 3,500 miles to the east than they do with Africans.

madagascar
A map of Madagascar, with Jefferson Rakotomalala’s village of Moramanga located just below the “R” of “MADAGASCAR.” / Courtesy of Britannica Online

The people are the “Malagasy,” and while the nation’s national language is Malagasy, Rakotomalala said there are 18 different tribes with corresponding dialect variations. Because of its colonization by France, Britannica notes the island nation of almost 31 million people “developed political, economic and cultural links with the French-speaking countries of western Africa.”

Rakotomalala comes from a rather extended family — many of whom he has never met and others only briefly. He is the third oldest among 13 children from his father, but oldest of three from his mother, Tojoniriana Oléa Rasoanatenaina. His brother, Mosesy Gino Jonathan Rakotomalala, is 18 while sister Sarobidy is 2.

His mother, who had Rakotomalala at age 17, has been the primary financial provider for the four of them, working jobs such as doing other people’s laundry and helping people get onto buses, receiving a modest percentage of what is charged for these services as her wages.

Rakotomalala said it amounts to his mom earning about $29 a month on average for the family. It’s not atypical in the country where, according to information from the World Bank, as of 2022, 75% of the population lives on 89 cents per person per day.

“He knows what it’s like, coming from poverty,” McKenzie said.

Overcoming Madagascar’s educational challenges

Family financial challenges weren’t the only obstacles to Rakotomalala’s journey to the U.S. There were educational hurdles.

Madagascar’s school system is composed of three tiers. Children can enter at age 6, with primary school running ages 6-10, lower secondary ages 11-14 and upper secondary ages 15-17 — the latter essentially amounting to high school.

But the country’s poverty impacts its children in their abilities to not only stay in school, but also to comprehend what they learn.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics for Madagascar, in 2018, 43% of students failed to complete primary school while 15% didn’t enroll in school at all — meaning 58% of youth ages 15-24 have no primary school education.

Of this age group, just 1% completed secondary and 2% completed post-secondary schooling.

The 2024 World Bank report noted in 2019, 97% of Malagasy children aged 10 were considered “learning poor” by not being able to read and comprehend a simple text. Of those finishing primary school, only 17.5% showed adequate proficiency in literacy and 21.6% in numeracy.

“The education system in Madagascar needs additional inputs to improve student outcomes, including enhanced teacher support, training, and pay, as well as sufficient learning materials, and investments in remedial education,” researchers Ana Maria Oviedo and Francis Muamba Mulangu wrote in their report.

Rakotomalala said he does well in school and loves to study. Inspired by his desire to learn and the hard work of his mother, he graduated from high school in 2019.

“It was something I wanted to do, get it for her,” Rakotomalala said.

Pursuing his dreams to study in the U.S.

Rakotomalala knew he wanted to continue his education in the U.S., but was uncertain how that would transpire. Friends and family who had traveled to the States assured him there were ways he could attain his dream.

From 2019 to 2022 Rakotomalala worked at a variety of jobs including as a customer advisor and a substitute teacher. Growing up Catholic, Rakotomalala said when his stepfather passed away in 2019, he decided to leave the denomination.

“I wanted to be free,” he said. “I chose to leave. I’m going to be a Christian.”

He joined a Christian youth group called “Madagascar Will Rise,” which he said helped him “get closer to God.”

The first group of U.S. universities he applied to rejected him because of his lack of proficiency in English. Backed by a roommate who “believed in him,” Rakotomalala continued to study English, and eventually passed his proficiency tests.

Another good friend sponsored him in his application to SFCC, McKenzie said, where he was accepted and provided a scholarship to attend beginning in fall 2022.

Still, there was the matter of getting to the U.S., something Rakotomalala’s family resources would have required three to four years of work just to get the plane ticket to travel the 10,000 miles to Spokane.

Using his strengths to raise money for a plane ticket

Rakotomalala said one of his strengths is his ability to talk to people. It’s a trait that has helped him the most.

“I’m a very talkative person,” he said. “That can be bad sometimes, but it’s a gift I use to share the Gospel.”

Wanting to help him raise money to go to the U.S., Rakotomalala’s church group produced two videos, one in English, the other in Malagasy, where he talked about his journey. A week after they were posted online, someone called and donated $300.

Not long after that, while standing in line to attend a basketball game, he received word that another individual would pay for his flight to the U.S.

“Now, God is doing something,” he said.

One week before he was to leave, in a very emotional moment, Rakotomalala told his mother he was realizing his dream and going to the U.S.

A future of college, and helping Madagascar

Rakotomalala has made the most of his college experience. At SFCC, he serves as president of the International Student Club. He also tutored students in economics, French and English.

He joined Life Center Foursquare Church on Government Way, serving on the greeting team and helping start a youth group. He has also returned to Moramanga in summer to volunteer for a number of activities.

“Whatever is suggested to him, he will do it,” McKenzie said. “If it’s an opportunity, he will take it. If it’s a scholarship, he will apply for it. If a professor tells him to ‘read this,’ he will.”

Rakotomalala will graduate this June with an Associates of Arts Degree in Business Administration and minors in economics and communications. He had hoped to attend Harvard University, but that didn’t work out.

He has been accepted to Whitworth University, Grand Canyon University, Virginia Union University, Baylor University and Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Of these, Rakotomalala found out on May 23 that Hope College had offered him full tuition and fees for two years — an offer that amounts to $42,120 annually.

McKenzie has set up a GoFundMe page to raise $30,000 for Rakotomalala’s room and board. He will be living on campus for the first time. She said there will be a lot she will miss when he leaves SFCC. She will especially miss his infectious ability to inspire people and to serve others, she said.

“It makes him feel really fulfilled,” she said. “As a result of his energy, others want to help him. It’s not self-serving, it’s very positive — even if he’s having a bad day.”

Giving back

Rakotomalala plans to pursue his master’s degree once he has received his bachelor’s. He also hopes to complete the Optional Practical Training Program. It’s a U.S. training program that directly relates to one’s field of study.

After giving back to the U.S. for all the opportunities he has received, Rakotomalala said he hopes to raise some capital and return to Madagascar. Part of his return is to help his mother.

Jefferson Rakotomalala with mother Tojoniriana Olea Rasoanatenaina, brother Mosesy Gino Jonathan Rakotomalala, now 18, and sister Sarobidy, now 2. Photo taken prior to leaving for the United States in 2022. / Contributed photo by Jefferson Rakotomalala

“She’s been through a lot,” he said, adding she has helped him to be who he is today.

Rakotomalala also plans to use the capital he raises to help his home country, particularly the often overlooked youth.

“What is the point to say I love Madagascar if I don’t go back,” he said. “It might take a few years but I’m going to go back. God is still using me, even now.”

“He can see what’s going on in Madagascar now, the corruption,” McKenzie added. “I can see him really wanting to change that.”

John McCallum
John McCallum
John McCallum is a freelance writer living in Liberty Lake. A graduate of Eastern Washington University with degrees in Journalism and Radio-Television, John spent 21 years at the Cheney Free Press as an award-winning staff reporter, editor, managing editor and photojournalist covering everything from government to education, sports, religion and current affairs. He is a member of Spokane’s Knox Presbyterian Church and has served as a church leader on session and participated in worship through a variety of roles. He has made six mission trips to Guatemala as a member of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest Guatemala Task Force. John enjoys time with his wife, Sheila, and their Dachshund, Chili, road trips — especially the Oregon Coast — along with running, biking and kayaking.

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