Fatima Jalloh finds strength within herself on the road to graduation

By Kenna Caprio

It’s hard to be apart: to leave, to separate, as graduating senior Fatima Jalloh knows all too well. But there can be such value in it: fleeing Sierra Leone at six years old saved Jalloh’s life. Escaping into her studies at Fairleigh Dickinson University, amid a pregnancy, offered the possibility of more for herself and her daughter. Moving to Washington D.C. to intern at the National Defense University, part of the Department of the Defense, took her to a new city and new levels. Now, she’s prepared her for the next journey: graduation.

Fatima JallohIn all these acts of leaving, whether permanent or temporary, Jalloh has found herself. And she is strong and capable and smart.

“No matter what your situation is, no matter what life throws at you, there is a solution,” says Jalloh, a political science major.

At every turn, she says, she defied the odds — and mostly all on her own.

Fatima Jalloh is a member of FDU's graduating Class of 2016.

In 1998, war broke out in Sierra Leone. She and her family first left the capitol, then eventually the country. “I remember some, especially during the war,” Jalloh says. When they left Freetown after the rebels came, they “had to walk for miles and days, nonstop. We rested once.” From Guinea, her father and uncle — already settled in the United States — were able to send for her. Lutheran Services Florida provided the resources for Jalloh to come to America. She had to leave her mother, who was not married to her father, behind. Eventually, though, Jalloh saved enough money to send for her mother. “I have many family members still in Sierra Leone because of a lack of money and resources,” she says. “One of my dad’s brothers passed away in the war. Our family never received his body. We were very lucky to get out alive.”

At first, the hardest part of moving to America, besides leaving her mother, was school.

“It was an on-and-off war. That means our education would be cut off. We’d go to school for a couple of months, and then war breaks out,” says Jalloh. “I was so behind in school when I came to the United States. I had to learn how to tell time and read. But the teachers were very helpful — I stayed after school and they gave me books to read.”

As the years passed, she grew more confident in her skills, and applied to college — drawn to FDU because of its emphasis on global education.

“The dreadful events that occurred during the war, and the risky journey my family took in order to seek safety in the United States inspired me to major in political science with a concentration in international affairs, so that I can implement my ideas to solve conflicts and achieve cooperation,” says Jalloh.

At FDU’s Florham Campus, she took advantage of the U.N. Pathways programs, and found champions in Professor Krista Jenkins and Associate Professor John Schiemann, both of whom teach political science. “They gave me words of wisdom and encouragement,” she says. “If you need help, always ask. Don’t just assume people know what you’re going through.” Her aunts, especially Mariama Jalloh, supported her, and when they could, gave her money for textbooks and transportation. Jalloh describes herself as an “independent student.”

In 2012, she became a United States citizen.

Then, during her junior year of college, Jalloh became pregnant. “That was very hard.” As she faced the situation without her mother, she felt very unsure about balancing it all — parenthood, work and school. But eventually she realized she could keep going. “I spoke to Professor Jenkins, and she advised me to take some online courses.” So during her pregnancy she did.

“She’s humble and unassuming and incredibly committed to not losing sight of her goals,” says Jenkins. “She’s absolutely terrific.”

Her daughter was born in October 2014.

“Being a parent has made me more responsible, and it has opened my mind to different things about life, and what it takes to raise a child. It’s not easy, but I look at it in a positive light.” Jalloh has since married a man she met through one of her aunts.

This semester she’s been apart from her family, temporarily, as she interns at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., through the Washington Center.

At her internship, she works with international military personnel from Egypt, Nigeria, Italy, France, Australia, Canada, Germany and more — 61 countries in all. “As a program associate at the National Defense University under the Department of Defense, I plan many field studies that aim to provide sixty-one international senior officers with the opportunity to obtain a balanced understanding of the United States government, and to increase their awareness of basic issues involving international recognized human rights,” Jalloh says.

The military personnel in the program also travel to Michigan, California, Montana, Louisiana, New York and Hawaii, “so they can see that each region has its own unique characteristics and values.” She’s been enjoying the work, especially since she wants to go into Foreign Service, or become a diplomat, but she does find it difficult to be away from her young daughter.

“My husband and daughter are in New Jersey — I try my best to visit them every two weeks. Also, while I work at the National Defense University, I take a three-hour U.S. foreign policy course every Wednesday with the Washington Center,” Jalloh says. Happily, during this time she’s been able to rely on her mother to help take care of her daughter.

“All the money I had, I saved it up to bring her here,” says Jalloh of her mother. For a long while, it was crippling. Instead of going shopping or seeing movies as a teenager, Jalloh saved. “Since age 14, I’ve been paying her rent and sending money to my sisters for school fees.”

To have her mother here now is worth everything.

Her mother and some of her aunts will attend Commencement. “I’m really excited, because I worked really hard for it,” Jalloh says. “Sometimes you have to go through hardships to make you tough, and all of this made me tough. Now, I understand that I can get through anything difficult that comes my way.” And next time, she’ll have her diploma in hand, and family by her side.