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SEGL at ALA: Q&A with Director Mairéad O’Grady

We’re thrilled to be launching SEGL at ALA in Johannesburg, South Africa in Spring 2020! Partnering with us in this endeavor is the African Leadership Academy, one of the world’s premiere educational institutions. ALA has a history of hosting outstanding American students and providing them with rigorous classes and a transformational experience.

Mairéad O’Grady will lead SEGL at ALA. Mairéad, who has been at SEGL since 2012, currently leads the school’s admissions and development efforts as Associate Head of School for External Affairs.  She also is SEGL’s French teacher.  Her love of French earned her a French Consulate grant to attend the “Festival des Francofolies” in southwestern France in 2007 and took her to Senegal for a semester abroad in 2008. Mairéad has also served as an international program leader for Walking Tree Travel (Senegal and Thailand) and SEGL (South Africa and Rwanda).

We sat down with Mairéad to discuss what inspired her to lead SEGL at ALA, and how she envisions the program’s future.  

1) Can you explain a little more about SEGL at ALA?

Like SEGL in DC, SEGL at ALA is a semester-long program for intellectually motivated high school juniors.  We will deliver the program in collaboration with the African Leadership Academy (ALA), which some people like to describe as “the SEGL of Africa.” This is a fun analogy, though there are some key differences: ALA is a two-year program, has just over 200 students from across the African continent, and has a stronger focus on entrepreneurship than it does on politics or international relations. But, like SEGL, ALA targets students who want to strengthen their own ethical frameworks and learn how to create positive change in our world.

Students who choose to study at SEGL at ALA will be integrated into the existing ALA community in key ways: living with an African roommate, taking core curricular classes with ALA students, and participating in extra-curricular activities on campus. And they will also maintain a strong identity as a group of 24 American students who are studying and addressing key issues in Africa and attempting to answer difficult questions about the role of the United States–and of themselves, as Americans–in resolving global conflicts.

2) This is the first time SEGL has expanded internationally for an entire semester. Why now?

There is something poignant about the fact that SEGL has decided to move forward with this partnership in its 10th year, so I’m tempted to give that as a response. But the truest answer to this question is that–as is the case with many extraordinary ideas–a series of fortunate events occurred in the right order and at the right time. Last spring, Noah met the Chair of ALA’s Board, Liz Berry Gips, at an event in DC. We’ve long admired ALA’s work and have tried to find opportunities to collaborate in the past, but other than an SEGL visit to ALA’s campus during a summer trip in 2013, we hadn’t figured out what the answer was. Noah and Liz imagined the idea of an SEGL program with a home base on ALA’s campus, something that would enrich each of our schools immensely. Our boards then began to talk; we sent members of our leadership teams back and forth across the world to “vet” the compatibility of the two schools; Christian Starling and I “embedded” at ALA for three days and three weeks, respectively, to determine whether this partnership would work–and whether I would want to lead it. The answer to both questions is yes!

3) You’ve been working at SEGL in DC for 7 years! What drew you to the idea of opening a school in Johannesburg?

Yes, it’s been seven incredible years! I began at SEGL in a one-year fellowship position in 2012, living in the dorms and teaching French; little did I know that I would end up with the opportunity to launch and lead our first international campus. But I have had the gift of a Head of School who has been excited to work collaboratively with me to craft a role that plays to many of my existing strengths and also allows me to learn and to grow in new ways. From an initial experience of dorm life and teaching, I took on admissions first, and then fundraising, in order to learn as much as possible about both the internal and the external pieces of running a school. The idea that I will now get to put what I’ve learned into practice, with the support of SEGL and ALA behind me, in a place that has long fascinated me and brings me geographically and culturally closer to West Africa (where my French students know my heart will always be)–it feels almost too perfect!

4) How does one apply to SEGL at ALA?

The application for SEGL at ALA is the same as the application for SEGL in DC. There’s now a new box to check for the Spring 2020 semester in Johannesburg! And during the next admissions cycle, we will be recruiting for both the fall and spring semesters.

5) Anything else you’d like to add?

Like I said earlier, I’ve been reflecting recently on how I would never have been able to predict this opportunity when I signed a one-year contract at SEGL at age 24. Sometimes, we get ahead of ourselves and are tempted to try to plan out what the next five, ten, twenty years of our lives will look like. As a millennial, I’ve seen many of my friends change jobs and cities over the years since we graduated from college, and I’ve compared my own trajectory to theirs, wondering if I, too, should be moving on. But there’s merit in sticking with something that feels good and right, something that allows you to grow and evolve, until a new way to use your strengths appears, often unexpectedly. Commitment–to a place, a cause, a person, whatever–is underrated, even scoffed at, in my generation. But had I given in to the pressure to move on, the fear of stagnation, the urge to compare myself to my peers, I might not have the opportunity that I do now. Of course, I am lucky to have found myself at a place that was willing to grow with me, and that’s a huge part of what made this new step possible. I’m excited to continue to grow with and for SEGL–and ALA–in the years to come.

Mar 15, 2019

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