When two universities in South Sudan needed help rebuilding their agriculture education programs, the Virginia Tech community immediately stepped in.

Last spring the Virginia Tech Office of International Research, Education, and Development, in partnership with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, began a five-year program supporting agriculture education in post-conflict South Sudan. Due to a decades-long civil war in the country, its agriculture education system was almost completely destroyed. Virginia Tech faculty have been working with their counterparts at the University of Juba and the Catholic University of Sudan to re-establish agricultural programming at the higher education level.

In an effort to help out, faculty, staff, and students from Virginia Tech and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have rallied over the past several months to gather thousands of used, but still relevant, textbooks. They hope to help stock the almost-bare shelves of the libraries of the South Sudan universities.

Margaret Merrill, the university librarian for the college, believes these books are essential to helping South Sudan students receive an education. Merrill believes many students, faculty members — and even other libraries — have extra books that could be sent to people who need them instead of throwing them away.

“You know the old metaphor of ‘When you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, but when you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime’?” Merrill asks. “To me, that’s what education does. And you can’t have education without access to humanity’s vast accumulation of knowledge. That’s what libraries do. They allow you access to that knowledge”

So far, these volunteers have packed more than 2,000 books, along with a similar number of journals, and expect that number to be closer to 5,000 when they ship their first crate sometime this semester. But the aid doesn’t stop there; the project is part of a multiyear plan to help the universities, with volunteers planning to send shipments of books and supplies annually for at least the next five years. 

Student volunteers, including several from the Virginia Tech chapter of Engineers Without Borders, have also pitched in to help, offering some of their free time to pack books to send to the Sudanese universities.

“I gathered volunteers from our group to come out and help with the project,” says Daniel Vaca, a senior studying civil and environmental engineering. “Each box takes about an hour to fill and catalog, so the more people we have, the more it helps. Our goal is to completely fill the container before shipping it.” 

Books cover subjects like agriculture, natural resource management, and natural and social sciences. Faculty and staff members hope the drive will help them further their efforts to help the country re-establish agriculture as a fundamental component of its development. The program’s goal is to help the South Sudan universities create research programs, update curriculum, build an agriculture extension program, and set up programs to train graduate students.

"As we assist our South Sudan university partners in rebuilding after the long civil war that destroyed virtually everything, providing the learning infrastructure — particularly by providing textbooks and library materials — is a crucial first step,” says Mike Bertelsen, the interim director of the Office of International Research, Education, and Development.

The Virginia Tech/South Sudan partnership is the result of a U.S. Agency for International Development-Sudan associate award to the Virginia Tech-managed Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program. As of now, the program has been awarded $9.4 million over the next five years.

With thousands of books left to be packed, the program is still seeking book donations and volunteers to help fill the boxes. Anyone interested in donating or volunteering should email Theo Dillaha for more information, or drop off donations at 310 Seitz Hall on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The university is looking for books that relate to agriculture, natural resource management, natural sciences, social sciences, and reference books.  



Written by Kelly Robinson, a senior majoring in communications and international studies and an intern for the Office of Communications and Marketing in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
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