Joanna Penn MPP 2015 reflects on her summer internship at the Rising Academy Network in Sierra Leone. 

August 26, 2014


Prior to coming to Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), Joanna Penn MPP 2015 went to work for the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) in Sierra Leone and then Malawi. AGI, which was founded by Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, “is focused on supporting leaders in African governments close the gap between their vision for their countries and the capacity within the government to deliver it,” writes Penn.


After being away from Sierra Leone for two years, I noticed real signs of progress. The mountain road that connects the western side of Freetown to the rest of the peninsula and the rest of the country beyond had been transformed. Freetown’s first four-star hotel opened recently, and hosted America’s Second Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, during my stay.

But despite this progress, Sierra Leone remains one of the poorest countries in the world—ranked 177 out of 187 countries globally on the U.N.’s Human Development Index. It struggles to provide basic necessities to its small but growing population: access to electricity, water and sanitation, basic healthcare, and education.

My internship focused on education. Most children in Sierra Leone reach fourth grade unable to recognize all 26 letters of the alphabet, let alone read independently. In ninth grade, 75 percent of students taking their Basic Education Certificate fail math.

Sierra Leone has significant prospects for economic growth in the coming years. Estimated real GDP growth was 16 percent in 2013 and is expected to stay in double digits in future years. But if children are not receiving a high quality education, Sierra Leone’s next generation will not be well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities such growth will bring.

The Rising Academy Network aims to change that. It is a new social enterprise seeking to become a leading provider of affordable, high-quality education in low-income countries in Africa, starting in Sierra Leone.

This September, Rising Academies aims to open its first school, and my role this summer was to support the CEO to make that happen. Working for an organization at such an early stage meant I had the opportunity to turn my hand to an incredibly diverse set of tasks—from registering the school with the government, to recruiting teachers, refurbishing the school buildings, to marketing the school and engaging the local community. There was never a dull moment and the speed at which we were getting things done meant that my time flew by.

I definitely drew on some of my first year classes as I made my way through my internship—classroom negotiation simulations helped me barter with the chairman of the motor-cycle taxi drivers on paying them to ride around Freetown wearing fluorescent jackets that advertised the school. I thought about the lessons from our management class about the importance of creating a strong vision and purpose for the organization to unite around as we recruited new staff and started to become a small team. My internship also left me with plenty of ideas about what I would like to study next year, including some really practical skills around budgeting and business planning.

One of the main lessons I learned in my first year at the Kennedy School is that it is about more than just the specific knowledge or skills you acquire, but the frame of mind and way of thinking that you bring to a problem. HKS teaches you to be structured and analytical, so regardless of the issue or area, whether it is familiar or not, you can take it on. Most importantly, being thrown together with a group of very clever people from around the world teaches you not to be intimidated, it teaches you to work with others and have the confidence to take on the next big challenge.