Burson living dream of teaching - in Nigeria

Ashley Burson (right) helps her mother, Susie Boyer, make one of the family’s traditional Christmas treats Wednesday, Dec. 18, at Boyer’s home in Roanoke. Burson, of Huntington, is on leave from her assignment as a missionary in Nigeria.
Ashley Burson (right) helps her mother, Susie Boyer, make one of the family’s traditional Christmas treats Wednesday, Dec. 18, at Boyer’s home in Roanoke. Burson, of Huntington, is on leave from her assignment as a missionary in Nigeria. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Ashley Burson got an extra, early Christmas present when she returned home from Nigeria for a visit with her family.

She got engaged.

Burson, a Huntington native who graduated from Huntington North High School in 2009 and Huntington University in 2013, has spent the past six months in the Nigerian town of Jos, located in the Plateau state in the central part of the African country. While there, she lived her dream of teaching kindergarten.

“I’ve always wanted to do missions abroad,” she says, adding her second passion is teaching school – in particular, kindergarten. “My mom was a kindergarten teacher, and I’ve always wanted to be like her.”

Burson does not get paid for her work. She must raise her own support, like many other missionaries who feel God’s call to go to foreign lands. After getting some good advice from other missionaries she went to Washington, DC, to apply for a passport and a visa. In June she moved to Nigeria; in August she taught her first class at Grace and Hope American Academy, a Christian school.

During her first six months away, she spent a lot of her free time Face-timing with her boyfriend, Bryan Meyers. It was hard developing such a long, long-distance relationship, but despite the challenges, on Tuesday, Dec. 17, Meyers asked her to marry him. He is now planning a move himself – accompanying his fiancée to Nigeria and starting his own ministry.

“I’m going to see what it’s like over there,” he says. “I’m going to meet the other missionaries and I’m going to be talking to some people about some different possibilities there.”

It turns out, Burson’s fiancé may answer more than just one prayer.

Meyers, a former corrections officer, has a bachelor’s degree in broadcasting, and a master’s in sports management. Anything’s possible, he says, but he’d like to do something with sports administration. Hopefully he will get to start a Christian sports academy in Jos for the kids who attend Burson’s school or live nearby.

“The people I’m serving with have had a vision to start a sports academy for several years, but they haven’t had someone to come lead it,” she explains. “So that is the plan as of now.”

A lot of Burson’s students are either residents of the local orphanage or they are refugees from the northern part of Nigeria.

“Northern Nigeria is quite dangerous when you hear about the violence in Nigeria and Boko Haram, that’s in northern Nigeria,” she explains, adding that the central part of the country is much safer to live in.

Boko Haram is an Islamic militant group that Burson describes as being much like ISIS in the Middle East.

“Most of my students, their fathers were killed by Boko Haram,” she explains. “They’re extremely brutal, and they’re specifically against Christians, and Western education. So basically, exactly what I’m doing.”

Most of the students’ fathers were killed for being Christians, giving rise to several ministries that help persecuted Christians in Nigeria. Those organizations provide scholarships to the refugee children that allow them to go to Burson’s school.

“The public schools in Nigeria are very poor. There’s a lot of corporal punishment and beating,” she says. “Even for small infractions like forgetting your toilet paper at home, you might get beaten with a stick or a rubber hose.

“I visited a local school that was run by the government and the roof was not intact, there were cinder block walls and wooden benches. There is not a single book, no pencils, no crayons, no type of school supplies or curriculum at all. Just a bare cinder block room with wooden benches and a chalkboard at the front. … There are sometimes between 50 and 100 kids in one class.”

Still, there are moments of inspiration that Burson has taken away from her experience in Nigeria.

Among her biggest accomplishments, she counts introducing some modern teaching techniques she’s learned as a teacher in the U.S.

“I’ve learned it’s not just a best practice because it’s Western or American, it’s because it’s research-based, and that’s what is best for children,” she relates. “Just being able to take what I have learned in my six years of teaching experience and my college education and being able to implement it into the classroom and to do some trainings for the teachers at my school.”

“She has opportunities to make a big difference in people’s lives there,” says Susie Boyer, Burson’s mother. “I think the day-to-day can be kind of boring for her but to walk out your door and be in Africa is kind of cool. And to be serving people, too.”

Burson admits she has a spirit of adventure, but she also credits her faith for giving her a feeling of safety as she lives and works in a foreign land, as well as wisdom as she follows her calling.

“Jesus makes me brave,” she says. “My faith is what makes me brave. It’s not that I’m a brave person or a super adventurous person. It’s because of my faith. I feel that I’m called to do this, and I feel like God’s not going to call me anywhere where he won’t be with me. I mean, God forbid that something terrible happens to me, but I know that I’m going to heaven. …

“You only have one life, and I feel like I’m making a much bigger difference there than I was here.”