Two people on a rocky beach; one in black hijab and abaya; the other in a tropical shirt and straw hat, with the ocean and waves in the background.

Sita Sako ’24, left, and Director of Service Learning and Community Engagement Ali Schaeffing, right, in Cape Town, South Africa.

Russell Sage College Sociology and Psychology major Sita Sako ’24 and Director of Service Learning and Community Engagement Ali Schaeffing, Ph.D., spent spring break 2024 in South Africa volunteering at a childcare center in a low-income area of Cape Town. 

For Sako, who traveled with support from the Doris Adams Ferguson ’53 Memorial Endowed Student Fellowship for Sociology, the trip was an opportunity to continue to learn about immigrant experiences and children’s mental health as she prepares for a career in social work or counseling. 

For Schaeffing, it was an opportunity to explore potential partnerships between Sage and International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ), a nonprofit organization that facilitates service trips around the world. 

Sako said she learned about the Ferguson Fellowship when Professor Michelle Napierski-Prancl asked her what she would do if she could go anywhere and do anything related to her major; she knew right away that she wanted to volunteer on the continent of Africa.

She researched different opportunities and through IVHQ found a childcare program that serves families who have immigrated to South Africa from neighboring countries for better opportunities. 

“I’ve always focused on kids or immigration or refugees,” said Sako, referring to previous research projects inspired by her experiences moving to the U.S. from Guinea as a child, and her observations of how the need for mental health support is sometimes downplayed in immigrant communities. “This was all-in-one.”

“It’s like a Pre-K or kindergarten,” she continued of the childcare program she served. “This school is very underfunded, and they rely on volunteers to come and help with the kids. We read them stories, ate with them, and played with them. It was definitely amazing. And the school, despite being underfunded, genuinely cares for these kids and their education.”

During the trip, Sato and Schaeffing also had a lot of conversations about attitudes toward immigrants in Cape Town versus New York City, how poverty affects children’s development and early education experiences, and what schools can do to support immigrant students. 

Sako said she was drawn to psychology by “the famous ‘Why do people act the way they do? question” and to sociology because it considers why groups act the way they do. “It’s an interesting combination. I get the best of both worlds.”

She chose Russell Sage because of its commitment to women’s education, it had the academic programs she wanted, and it was a comfortable distance from her home in the Bronx. 

“I like to call myself a little researcher because of how many research opportunities I was given, that have impacted me so much with my personality, my leadership skills, my communication skills,” she said. 

In 2023, she conducted a study that concluded with her presentation, “Belonging and Inclusion for Successful Integration: Effective Social Support for Young Adult Newcomers,” at Sage’s Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program Summer Research symposium. For her capstone, she investigated religion as a mental health coping mechanism, and she’s preparing a presentation about her trip to South Africa for Sage’s Undergraduate Research Day. 

In addition to research experiences and the Ferguson Fellowship, Sako listed an internship at St. Catherine’s Center for Children and a work-study position in the Student Life office among the  resume-building experiences she has had at Sage. 

When she becomes a social worker or Licensed Mental Health Counselor, her goal is to make mental health more accessible to immigrant communities. 

“There’s a lot of undiagnosed kids and a lot of undiagnosed adults who are not seeking the help that they should be seeking,” she said. 

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