Danielle Fontaine in Africa
Five years after a trip to Zambia, Danielle Fontaine returned to Africa to teach elementary school children at an orphanage in Ethiopia. Photo by Danielle Fontaine

by Jordana Torres

Ever since a high school trip to Zambia to repair dor­mi­to­ries, Danielle Fontaine has been searching for a chance to return to Africa. So when she got a co-​​op with Selam Children’s Vil­lage, an orphanage and school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Fontaine just knew she had to go.

“It’s a little hard to explain exactly what made me want to go back to Africa,” said Fontaine, a senior with a com­bined major in psy­chology and Amer­ican Sign Lan­guage. “I think I just fell in love with it while I was there.”

Fontaine trav­eled to Ethiopia last fall with Projects Abroad, a com­mer­cial vol­un­teer travel orga­ni­za­tion that places stu­dents in 30 coun­tries world­wide. While in Addis Ababa, Fontaine worked in a kinder­garten class­room with 35 four- to eight-​​year-​​old chil­dren, who taught her just as much as she taught them.

Selam Children’s Vil­lage com­prises 11 family houses, each with as many as 20 chil­dren who are looked after by two female care­takers. The women feed, clothe, and raise the chil­dren as if they were their own and all of the kids living in the vil­lage are pro­vided with shelter, health­care, and education.

Through this expe­ri­ence, Fontaine real­ized these chil­dren were sim­ilar in many way to those she’s taught back home, despite the phys­ical and cul­tural bound­aries. “I learned that kids are kids wher­ever you go, what­ever lan­guage they speak, and what­ever their fam­i­lies or cir­cum­stances are like,” Fontaine said. “There are just some things that make all kids the same.”

The pro­gram immersed her in Ethiopia’s edu­ca­tion system, which dif­fers from the U.S. system in just about every way, according to Fontaine. “The teaching methods, activ­i­ties, and lesson plans are entirely dif­ferent,” she explained. “I was able to learn new skills, and the expe­ri­ence con­firmed for me that I want to be an early child­hood teacher.”

Fontaine’s pas­sion for teaching was sparked during her first co-​​op as a class­room assis­tant at an ele­men­tary school in Newton, Mass. That job taught her how to manage a class­room and gave her con­fi­dence to suc­ceed in pro­fes­sional settings.

“Rather than waiting for someone to direct me, I learned to be more self-​​sufficient and con­fi­dent in what I was accom­plishing,” Fontaine said.

After grad­u­ating next fall, she plans to get her master’s degree in early child­hood edu­ca­tion with the goal of becoming a kinder­garten teacher.

“My expe­ri­ences have made me really excited for my future and I’m excited to move on and use what I have learned at North­eastern in my future career,” she said.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on April 12, 2013