Alumnus reflects on the transformative power of education and Union Institute & University

By Syrulwa Somah, Ph.D. ‘94
President & Professor
Harbel College, Lower Marigibi County, Liberia

I was born in Liberia in Kokoyah, Upper Bong County on January 1, 1959. My parents both had no formal education, but they didn’t mince words telling me that without education, I would “tow” another man’s load or be a servant. The lack of informal education didn’t stop my parents from performing their societal roles; they were graduates of the traditional Poro and Sande College. My mother was a traditional midwife, and my father was a traditional necromantic, who devoted their time to the health of the community. None of my siblings graduated from college either — or even attended, besides my older brother who graduated as an accountant from a trade school. My grandparents were farmers. My life story is an extraordinary testament to the transformative power of education. Education transformed me to transform society and help to build myself and better the future for those who come after.

When it comes to college education, I know I was incredibly lucky, especially when before I finished elementary school, malaria had taken more than 25 of my classmates and friends. At the same time, education was a luxury that was unaffordable, which meant laziness was not a part of the culture. In order to attend elementary school, I had no choice but to help my father at work by climbing palm trees to cut the nuts and make oil to sell. Out of the blue, my older brother came to me and said, “You’re going with me to Buchanan City to go to school.” I thought he was joking. One thing that I learned early on was to not take no for an answer but to be rather transformed by challenges and obstacles. Once I tasted education, I knew its value.

I chose Union because of the indelible and distinguished pioneering student-centered educational approach, endearing students to feel valued, acknowledged, and safe, and interdisciplinary pedagogy that privileges social relevance and fosters transformative inclusivity. While other colleges and universities’ admissions policies aimed to exclude African Americans and other minorities from acquiring college and university education during the zeitgeist of the 1960s, especially the Civil Rights Movement, Union identified and refined a delivery structure that has a ‘universal taste of water’ to quench all students, especially the working class who need education thirst for a just equitable world. There is no place like Union, beholden to freeing or fertilizing the student’s mind to inquire without hindrance.

Through the transformative power of education, I earned scholarships to the United States. I earned an A.A. in Liberal Studies from LaGuardia Community College in Long Island, New York; a B.S. in Labour Studies/Occupational Safety & Health from the Empire State University of New York; an M.S.A. in Healthcare administration from Central Michigan University and an M.L.S. in History and Religion from the University of Oklahoma, and lastly, a Ph.D. in Environmental and Occupational Health from Union Institute and University.

I have authored several books, including:

  • “Dyuòɛ̀kadyù: The Legend of the Bassa, deeply written literary, human, and spiritual exploration of African storytelling”
  • “The Historical Resettlement of Liberia and Its Environmental Impact”
  • “Christianity, Colonization, and State of African Spirituality”
  • “The Historical Resettlement of Liberia and Its Environmental Impact”
  • “Nyanyan Gohn-Manan: History, Migration & Government of the Bassa”, a book about traditional Bassa leadership and cultural norms, one of the sixteen major ethnic groups of Liberia.

My transformative education has allowed me to see the social world differently and through an ethical lens so that it challenges me to change the status quo as an agent of change.  I introduced my malaria eradication campaign on malaria treatment and control at the camps of NC A&T in 2005. I then spoke about it at a national health conference in Monrovia, Liberia in 2006, and during several malaria awareness workshops and seminars within African communities across the U.S. and Liberia. One of the highlights of the 2006 conference was an invitation extended to me and my officials by the US Embassy in Liberia, to witness the historic announcement by U.S. President George W. Bush via satellite, declaring that Liberia would be a focus country and benefit from President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) funds.  As a focus nation, Liberia automatically became eligible to receive over $70 million in aid for malaria control and prevention efforts.

I worked at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University as a professor of environmental health and occupational safety & health and as a graduate program coordinator. After returning to Liberia to help with higher education, I served as VP for Administration and VP for Sponsored Programs and Economic Development at W.V.S. Tubman University (TU).  In 2015 I was given the honor of being nominated as the first President of Harbel College (HC).

Awards I received include the Africa Environmental Watch Humanitarian Award (2009); Liberia Image Award (2008); NCA & T State University’s “Teacher of the Year Award” (2007); “Faculty Innovator Award” (2007); and “Outstanding OSH Department Professor of the Year Award” (2001 and 2004), and Faith Foundation Legacy Award (2021). I am the recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship Award to India (2010) for my passion for transformational education and malaria control.

I am a proud graduate of Union Institute & University.

Learn more about Dr. Somah and Harbel College at