BOONE—Never take your college education for granted, students at Appalachian State University were told during fall convocation Sept. 3. That caveat was delivered by Ishmael Beah, author of the memoir “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” which was selected for the university’s Common Reading Program this year.
The book recounts Beah’s years as a child soldier, fighting for three years against rebels during Sierra Leone’s civil war starting when he was 13.
“You are among the few people in the world who have access to higher education,” Beah said. “There are many people around the world who would do anything to be in your position. So when you wake up one morning and have a lot of reading to do, I want you to put that into perspective and realize you are doing something that a lot of people in the world would do anything to have. So take advantage of that.”
Beah said his early education and stories told by elders in his community helped save him during the darkest points in his life.
“I come from a part of the world where we believe that stories are medicine that are poured into people to strengthen them for what life may throw at them – to strengthen their resolve, their character, their humanity,” he said. “As a boy growing up, I had several lessons from the oral tradition of storytelling that became part of who I am.”
Those stories included themes of making difficult decisions and the consequences of engaging in violence.
Beah, who was orphaned by the war, was one of the thousands of young boys forced to fight against rebels during Sierra Leone’s civil war. With the help of UNICEF, he was removed from the army and sent to a rehabilitation center where he learned to rejoin humanity. “I only knew violence and that’s what I wanted to go back to,” he said. While he was in the rehabilitation center, Beah said, the thirst for knowledge that his father had planted in him slowly returned.
“Something my father had said that gave me strength to survive was that if you are alive there is a possibility for something good to happen to you,” he said.
Beah was invited to travel to the United States and speak about his experiences as a boy soldier at a U.N. conference. While there, he was befriended by a UNICEF worker who later adopted him and brought him permanently to New York, where he finished high school and went on to earn a degree from Oberlin College.
“Education became a journey for me to discover my intelligence, my own humanity, to discover myself,” Beah said. “I was acquiring something that no one would ever be able to take away from me, which is the capacity to think for myself, the capacity to ask questions, the capacity to have a voice and be able to challenge ideas, to create ideas.
“You are privileged to have access to a higher education, not just to get a career, but also as a journey to discover yourself, the way you think about yourself, and to your place in the world and what you can do,” he said. “Use this time at the university to explore. You may discover things that you have a passion or talent for that you never knew existed before.”
About Appalachian State University
As the premier public undergraduate institution in the Southeast, Appalachian State University prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The Appalachian Experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and to embrace diversity and difference. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachian is one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina System. Appalachian enrolls nearly 21,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.
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