A Promise Is a Promise
Martha Cummings ’80 enlists a network of Mawrters to support education in South Africa.
By Juliana Rosati ’03
Martha Cummings ’80 paused as she prepared to deliver remarks welcoming the new principal of the Vusumzi School, a middle school in an impoverished region of South Africa. Gazing at the singing children and teachers, she reminded herself of the journey that had brought her, as founder of Universal Promise, a nonprofit dedicated to improving small areas of the world through education, to initiate a renovation of the school. It was a journey fueled not only by Cummings’ lifelong passion for education but also by the enduring ties between Mawrters.
A Rhode Island-based private tutor and author who has spent 32 years as an educator and a school administrator, Cummings credits a 2008 Bulletin article as the source of fresh inspiration to keep a promise she made to herself on her 21st birthday: to visit Africa before she turned 50. “I now tell my students, when you make a promise to yourself, never give yourself a 29-year window,” Cummings quips.
Prompted by the article, which reported on a South Africa trip in the Among Women: An International Dialogue travel series organized by Bryn Mawr and its sister women’s colleges, Cummings arrived in Cape Town with four days to spare before her self-imposed deadline. On her 50th birthday, she visited a nearby model school that an alumna in the article had mentioned and delivered a donation she had requested from friends and relatives in place of birthday gifts.
A few days prior, while on a safari in the Addo region east of Cape Town, Cummings had asked a staff member at a game lodge if he would show her the local schools. She hoped to learn firsthand about the long-term consequences of apartheid on education. “It has always struck me that when those in power want to oppress a people, the first thing they take away is education,” Cummings says.
A drive through a garbage dump to visit a nursery school, or crèche, planted the seed of Universal Promise in Cummings’ mind. “We saw adults and children sitting in the squalor and eating,” she recalls. Arriving at the crèche, she felt deeply moved to see how it served as a haven for both children and adults. Meeting its founder, she was inspired by the woman’s philanthropy. “I knew that my whole life was changing in that very moment; I knew I could do something,” Cummings shares.
Today, joined by fellow Bryn Mawr alumnae, Cummings has made significant strides toward supporting education in the region. Cummings formally founded Universal Promise in 2011, appointing a Bi-College board made up of herself, Mary Ward Burns ’80, and Anjan Chatterjee, Hfd ’80. With gratis legal assistance arranged by Gillian Facher ’80, executive director of a law firm, Cummings formalized documents that allowed volunteers to participate freely on site in South Africa. Working closely with three South African organizations, Universal Promise runs a sponsor-a-child program for the crèche, the initiative to renovate the nearby Vusumzi School, and other projects. In a case of alumnae news going viral, word of the sponsorship program spread on Facebook from Burns to Kathi Brown ’80 and beyond. Of the current 46 sponsors of the crèche, which serves approximately 50 to 60 children from birth to age 6, 18 are Mawrters.
“As her friend and as a fellow teacher, I have always admired Martha’s intellect, energy, and vision, as well as her ability to create opportunities,” says Burns, who points to a shared commitment to education among the contributing alumnae. “All of us are passionate in our belief that every child should have access to a quality learning environment.”
As Cummings retraced her path at the middle-school ceremony this past August, she had no doubt about Bryn Mawr’s role in her journey. “I just don’t think I would have been there if I hadn’t received the education and sense of empowerment I did [at Bryn Mawr],” she says. “My Bryn Mawr education has always made me believe that I could do anything.”