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Living on the run in the midst of civil war, Patience Noah lost her enthusiasm for school. It took a long physical and emotional journey to regain a belief that all things are possible.

By Ann P. Schreiber

From 1989 to 1996, one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Liberians and displaced a million others into refugee camps in neighboring countries. A second civil war broke out three years later and ended in 2003.

Patience Noah was born in June 1988, just months before the first conflict escalated into a war.

“I was born in Liberia. I grew up there. In the process of that civil war, my mom sent me to live with my grandmother in another village,” Noah remembers. “Then we had to move from village to village and from town to town. We moved from city to city and country to country, because my mother was afraid of our family being attacked by rebels,” she adds with a sigh.

“We had to live ready to be on the run with our things packed. Eventually, we went to the Ivory Coast, a nearby country. We walked for several days to get there.

“We lived there as refugees, then we returned to a new life in Liberia to find out that everything that was home was gone. We tried to stay there and make the best of our lives. I tried to go to school.”

After a couple of years back in Liberia, Noah’s mother, Mai Beah, moved to the nation’s capital, Monrovia, and later sent for Noah and her brother. They were enrolled in a private school, but Noah admits that her interest in school was waning. The fear of living on the run more than quelled her enthusiasm.

“I tried to wing it, you know,” she clarifies. “I took it seriously. I studied, and I eventually realized that many people didn’t have the opportunity that I had.”

Despite that nagging apathy, Noah managed to excel in her studies. Then, in 2000, her mother left Liberia for the United States.

Noah and her brother stayed behind with an uncle and kept going to school. Her mother sent for the two in 2002. They settled in Framingham, Mass., a place her mother thought would be safe.

“And,” Noah laughs, “we’re not going anywhere else!”

Adjusting to a new world

Haltingly, Noah tells the story of her transition to another school. “Two weeks after I came to America ... With my accent, with the change of schools and friends ...

“If you are a new student who doesn’t know what’s going on, and everyone’s English is different, the people are different, everything is different ...

“I struggled, but things were OK,” she finishes. “Kids made fun of my accent, but it was OK. I got used to it.”

Soon Noah was ready for high school and enrolled in the cosmetology program at Joseph P. Keefe Technical School. Noah was quiet and kept to herself until the day she volunteered to explain to the class how to do a manicure. “I put my hand up, and I just did it,” she says

Her teacher, Michelle Roche, pulled her aside and asked if she’d ever heard of SkillsUSA. Roche explained that joining would certainly help Noah, so she tried it.

“I joined my school’s officer team the following year,” she says. “I was the school treasurer. I was involved in SkillsUSA, and I thought about being a state officer. I had seen a team of officers, and the five girls were like the ‘Superwomen’ of SkillsUSA. They were so motivated and enthusiastic. The way they carried themselves, I thought, ‘Oh, this is really how a young lady should behave and act.’

“I wanted to be like that some day. But I didn’t tell anyone. I went home and I talked to my friends about it, then I went to my advisor. I was doing basketball, cross country and track. She told me that if I wanted to be a state officer, ‘You’re going to have to quit all of these things.’

I wasn’t ready to quit, because I was good at these. So, I didn’t run for state office.”

Then Noah received a letter from the SkillsUSA state association director, Karen Ward, asking her to run for state office. But the logistics of getting to meetings and taking on more while playing sports didn’t seem doable.

“I didn’t have a car, and my mom worked two jobs, so she was never home,” Noah says. “And my mom, she can’t drive on the highway. So I thought, ‘How am I going to get to these meetings?’”

She went to her advisor, and they filled out the officer candidate forms. Then they went to the school principal.

“Because of SkillsUSA, I renewed my passion for education. I saw that maybe it is possible to go beyond what you think you can do. Then I started to realize that things happen in your past, but you can’t live your future in the past.”

The principal granted permission for her SkillsUSA advisor, Linda Millard, to provide transportation. Noah still gushes with gratitude.

“Sunshine, rain, snow, she was always at my house to take me to my meetings. She took money out of her own pocket to help me. She helped me with my campaign; she did everything. I will love her forever.”

Her advisor suggested that “Patience is the Key to Success” be her campaign theme. And, off they went to states.

“I was nervous to give my speech, but I conquered my nerves, and I was elected as the state ambassador. The state ambassador is like a liaison, a representative of the chapters,” Noah explains.

“Because of SkillsUSA, I renewed my passion for education. I saw that maybe it is possible to go beyond what you think you can do. Then I started to realize that things happen in your past, but you can’t live your future in the past.”

She decided to share her story with the officer team and again at the state conference. “It made me who I am,” she reflects. “Things happened, but here, I want to live a different life. And [the team] respected who I am. That is so special to me. They taught me a lot about myself.” Noah’s peers were amazed by her story, in no small part because she was so upbeat.

While facing many challenges in her life, she’d grown in wisdom. “As you go into the future, even though whatever it was happened and the memories will come, you have to put them in their place,” she points out.

Now a freshman majoring in international business at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, Noah hopes to have a career in politics one day. And, she’s anxious to go back to Liberia.

“Most definitely, I will return,” she says. “I want to be involved. I want to help the people there who haven’t had the opportunity that I’ve had. My entire family is still there. My father, my grandmother, they’re still in Liberia. I have to go back.”

Noah pauses. “I have to go back. But for now, I am here, and education is what I have to do.”

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SkillsUSA Champions | Winter 2009 | Volume 43, No. 2
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