Thomas G. McGill Tappeh

When asked about his life, Thomas G. McGill Tappeh begins with his grandfather. As a king of the Dan people living in Liberia, his grandfather Tappeh was known to be powerful but peaceful. Despite his stature in society, Tappeh understood that in order for his children to be successful, they would require a formal education. This belief was transmitted through the generations to Thomas, whose whole life has focused on education.

Thomas was born in Liberia in 1946. Although he did not begin his formal education until he was a teenager, he was a quick study and impressed his teachers, including one of the first Peace Corps volunteers, especially in math. 

After he completed high school, Thomas founded Tappeh Memorial High School, the first high school in his hometown of Tappita, named in honor of his grandfather’s belief in education instead of after a politician, as was custom. Thomas acted as principal, teacher and tutor for many years before he announced his own plans to attend university. When his acceptance letter arrived, a crowd gathered and lifted Thomas up in the air, parading him around town as the first Tappita resident to attend university.

Violence broke out in Liberia in 1985 while Thomas was at university. He fled the country and enrolled in Drexel University’s math program in Philadelphia. Although he was forced to drop out after a couple of semesters due to the expense, he still hopes one day to complete his studies. Once the violence in Liberia gained world attention in 1990, Thomas was finally granted asylum in 1992. For many years, he worked full-time and volunteered as a tutor with local high schools.

However, after his asylum documentation was lost, Thomas was unable to prove that he was authorized to work in the United States. He was referred to HIAS Pennsylvania, where the Asylee Outreach Project helped him to replace his lost I-94 card, receive a new Employment Authorization Document, and finally become a legal permanent resident.  As a result of HIAS Pennsylvania's assistance in securing residency, Thomas finally received his Social Security retirement benefits, which saved his home from foreclosure.

In the latest chapter of his life, Thomas is attending a two-year program at the Aircraft Institute of Maintenance in Philadelphia, where he is learning to repair large aircraft and will train as a pilot. At age 63, Thomas is older than all of the other students and teachers. Yet, as he learned from his grandfather Tappeh, “everything has a time and education has no end.”

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