Last week, James Roberts ’66 returned to campus to share his experiences that ranged from his time as a first year Hobart student, to a man returning to his native country during a 14-year civil war, and his exile from and return to Liberia, where he is now Deputy Minister for Planning, Research and Development for the Ministry of Education.
When he came to Hobart, Roberts was one of about five international students on campus. Majoring in English and theater, he said he wanted to “communicate and change attitudes” of his fellow Liberians. He was given an Albright Scholarship to study theater in Boston and England. While he first aspired to become a writer, he knew in reality many Liberians are illiterate so his message wouldn’t get too far. Instead, Roberts attempted to use the visual and spoken dialogue in theater to try to stimulate change in his home country.
During Liberia’s civil war, many of the insurgents involved in the coup d’état were poorly educated young men, with little more than a seventh grade education. In this climate, Roberts was arrested and nearly put in front of a firing squad; they believed his intelligence and education were threatening.
As the civil war came to end, Roberts and several others took on the difficult task of reconstructing the education system. Liberia’s educational infrastructure was decimated; more than 70 percent of it was destroyed. It was evident to Roberts that the lack of education and information was crippling his country.
“Education is not just having a tool, but using that tool to help everyone around you,” he explained.
He returned to Liberia in 1997, establishing an NGO that designed training programs for educators. In 2006, he was named Deputy Minister for Planning, Research and Development for the Ministry of Education. In his latest position, Roberts is responsible for evaluating the Ministry’s programs.
Educating the Liberian population has been a great challenge. Roberts has succeeded in rebuilding schools, but there are still issues. Many towns are very small and spread out – making it difficult to create centralized government schools. There have been successes, too. Roberts has been victorious in creating a teacher training and development program which saw its first graduating class in 2008: the first class in 20 years. Additionally, he has helped create free primary education and vocational schools. Roberts said he will continue to push for better education for a better Liberia. The Ministry recently launched the Education Sector Plan of Liberia, which seeks to reform the nation’s education system. This past summer his efforts won $40 million for Liberia schools.
Roberts graduated from Hobart College with a B.A. in English in 1966 and went on to complete an M.F.A. in theatre arts from Boston University. Before Liberia’s civil war, he worked in theatre, dance and television for more than 10 years. He earned a M.Ed. in administration, planning and social policy analysis from Harvard University.