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Mount Alumna Unites Community Through ‘Universal Language’ of Music

6/29/2017

Riverdale, N.Y. – Mount alumna Jill Dayao ’17 has always know the transformative power of music. “I started singing in fifth grade,” Ms. Dayao said. “Music has always made me feel alive. It’s given me comfort.” Most of all, Ms. Dayao said, “I believe it’s a universal language.” This year, she used that language to bring a community of Italian natives, Cameroonian students studying abroad, and refugees, mostly from various parts of Africa, together.

Ms. Dayao, who received her master’s degree in International Development and Service (IDS) from Mount Saint Vincent in May, first arrived in Siena, Italy last October. “I became very aware of the European migrant crisis because I witnessed it first-hand,” she said. “Most of the refugees I met were African.” The group was relatively small—about 30, mostly men—who lived in encampments with few resources. The Siena locals, Ms. Dayao said, seemed skeptical of the newcomers. “The culture in Siena is very traditional and conservative. I immediately saw a need for change, to help the refugees feel more comfortable in their adopted home and help the Siena locals feel more at ease, too.”

Long passionate about ending discrimination through intercultural communication, the Vallejo, California native decided to throw an open mic night at a Siena café as a way for the community to come together. “I think music is a unifying force,” Ms. Dayao said. “The refugees in Siena spoke different dialects—various African ones as well as French. Music, I knew, could be the way to create a rich intercultural space, breaking down stereotypes through the freedom of creative expression.”

All proceeds from the evening would benefit REPCAM, a Yaounde, Cameroon-based youth organization offering critical support to more than 650 children of incarcerated parents. “I learned about REPCAM through my studies in Italy, which supports REPCAM,” Ms. Dayao said. “A lot of times parents are arrested for small infractions and the children have no one. It’s a problem not a lot of people know about.”

REPCAM was founded in 2005 to counteract the incarcerated parent-child stigma and work to amend the Cameroonian law prohibiting youth from visiting parents in prison. The group focuses on bridging the parent-child relational gap through prison visits and various programs while also providing support to children through access to adequate healthcare resources, educational/psycho-social support, and basic necessities like food and clothing.

Despite working to publicize the open mic night through word-of-mouth, fliers, and social media, there was a relatively small turnout. Ms. Dayao, however, would not give up. She chose to return to Siena for her final semester in the IDS program this past spring. “We worked even harder, getting word out through local radio stations and television, and had more time to plan the event,” Ms. Dayao said. This time, about 140 people showed up. “We had triple the attendance,” Ms. Dayao laughed. “There were a lot of Siena locals as well as members of the refugee community.” A Siena native who was a professional singer even took the stage. “We played everything from native African songs to Bob Marley, Amy Winehouse, and Alicia Keyes. It was a thrilling success.” The night raised approximately $400 for REPCAM.

“Over and over, people told me how much this kind of event was needed, how much it brought people together,” Ms. Dayao said. “It was wonderful!” There are potential plans for the event to continue regularly.

Next up, Ms. Dayao is exploring work in international nonprofits. “My sense of life, of purpose, is about helping others,” she said. “Always innovate, keep thinking, ‘How can I learn? How can I connect?’ The more we do that, the more we can truly enact lasting change.”

About the College of Mount Saint Vincent
Founded in 1847 by the Sisters of Charity, the College of Mount Saint Vincent offers nationally recognized liberal arts education and a select array of professional fields of study on a landmark campus overlooking the Hudson River. Committed to the education of the whole person, and enriched by the unparalleled cultural, educational, and career opportunities of New York City, the College equips students with the knowledge, skills, and experiences necessary for lives of professional accomplishment, service, and leadership in the 21st century.