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Innovative Ways to Uplift and Upskill Refugees around the World

By Joseph Kankolongo

Photo by Julia Cumes

Think about this statistic: only 3% of displaced people attend universities out of 70 million, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Many other millions of refugees are not getting education.

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) via its Global Education Movement (GEM) is addressing this issue through its higher education programs for refugees in which learners go through degree programs that are flexible, hands-on and designed to set graduates up for success.

The Scalabrini Center of Cape Town in South Africa is one of several locations where students can access SNHU degrees and receive the necessary on-the-ground support from a local expert partner. Mishka Reddy, one of the managers of Scalabrini Center’s UpLearn program, is making a difference in students’ lives.

Through SNHU and GEM, UpLearn supports close to 200 migrants, refugees and South African students in obtaining fully accredited competency-based associates and bachelor’s degrees at no cost to the student. The degrees offered include Communications, Logistics and Healthcare Management.

I asked her why the programme is called UpLearn, and she noted that “when we were thinking of a name for our program, we reflected on words that personified the joint efforts of SNHU, GEM and the Scalabrini Centre.”

She recalled two words that came to mind at the time:

Upskill: providing wrap-around services such as professional development training, academic coaching, and monthly facilitated workshops to equip students with the necessary skills for mastering their degrees.

Uplift: supporting student changemakers to uplift themselves and their communities.

“While two very relevant words, this programme was about more than just upskilling and uplifting. We wanted students to be partners with us in their learning and given that this program started as a pilot, we wanted students to be able to provide feedback in developing the tenants of the program. We also wanted the name and our program’s ethos to embody Scalabrini Centre’s mission to foster integration through the efforts of students themselves.” Mishka notes that through education, students would be able to meet and surpass their fullest potential and thus UpLearn became the name of the program.

According to Mishka, the mission of UpLearn is to support students by facilitating successful online learning through a comprehensive support system. UpLearn facilities and services include a computer lab and two classrooms, printed resources, in-lab and online academic assistance, case-by-case welfare support, interactive teaching seminars and enrichment workshops. In addition, there is also a weekly English club, one-on-one coaching, internship placement support and a comprehensive professional development course.

Photo by Jon Mercer

Mishka said, the vision is to "sustain the highest academic and professional standards so that UpLearn students are competitive in the job market. We want to foster within our cohorts leaders who understand the needs of the world and strive to fill those gaps.”

While the program is now established, there were challenges along the way. UpLearn had to pivot throughout its first year. The coaching model, the teaching model and key program policies went through several iterations informed by student feedback. More recently, when COVID-19 became widespread, much of the program’s operations had to move online and students had to be equipped with the right digital literacy skills to be able to continue making progress without face-to-face support. Given that students entered the program with differing levels of computer knowledge, this was a huge challenge at first.

“The team was instrumental in ensuring that all students were able to use the necessary online tools effectively in order to continue their learning. This was done by integrating digital literacy training within teaching week sessions, coaching sessions and adapting our digital literacy and professional development courses into an online asynchronistic course housed in Google Classroom.”

Advice for aspiring innovators and my takeaways

This story exemplifies the power of moving forward with an idea, even if it isn’t fully developed. Weak ideas are not bad ones so long as they can be improved and become useful to society. Avoid sticking with an idea for fear of change.

It is important, just like the example of UpLearn, to change strategies and not let the same mistakes happen repeatedly. Finish strong so even if we have made mistakes in the past, we can learn from them.

Mishka and her team addressed their different challenges by remaining clear about their program’s values. This is another important lesson for me to consider as I pursue my future goals. I want to bring teams together and contribute to defining a vision that aligns to our work's purpose around helping our audiences, serving others and contributing to their success.

Learn more about Mishka Reddy via LinkedIn. Joseph Kankolongo is a student at Southern New Hampshire University. He just completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications with a concentration in Business. Connect with him on LinkedIn. He wrote this story after going through Global Innovators Academy’s Interview an Innovator course experience.

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