Kepler College Program in Rwanda Refugee Camp a Unique Experience - Higher Education
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Kepler College Program in Rwanda Refugee Camp a Unique Experience

by Catherine Morris

Jean Marie Vianney is a lead teacher for the Kepler program in the Kiziba United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refugee camp in Rwanda. He has been a teacher with the program for the past two months, and prior to that, taught in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, also with Kepler.

So far, teaching at Kiziba has been a positive experience, Vianney told Diverse.

“Kiziba students find Kepler to be an opportunity that just comes once. They had no hope to get to a university, but once Kepler came, they found it to be another opportunity,” Vianney said. In Kiziba, there are three primary schools and one secondary school, he explained, which means that few refugees have access to a secondary education, let alone higher education.

Kepler is a postsecondary educational program first established in Kigali in 2013 by the nonprofit organization Generation Rwanda. Students selected for the program receive on-site classroom instruction, along with online course programming.

At the completion of the program, they are awarded either an associate or bachelor’s degree from Southern New Hampshire University’s online degree, College for America. The Kiziba branch of Kepler officially launched in August 2015 and is funded in part by the IKEA Foundation.

So far, 16 students have graduated from the Kigali campus with a bachelor’s degree, and 97 more have obtained an associate degree. The majority of Kepler graduates and current students also have already found full-time employment while still attending Kepler.

“We’re looking for students who are very smart, and wouldn’t normally have access to higher education,” said Chrystina Russell, SNHU Vice President for Global Engagement. “So it’s a very unique group of students that we’re serving.”

Prior to joining SNHU in her new role in June 2016, Russell was the chief academic officer of Kepler for three years, helping launch the Kigali campus in 2013. Currently, Kepler serves 350 students at the Kigali campus, Russell said, and the program now also serves 50 students at the Kiziba campus, after adding a new 25-student cohort on June 17.

“I think having a U.S. degree opens a lot of doors in terms of employment in Rwanda,” Russell added. “On the other hand our program is new, and people are looking for students to prove themselves. So we still need to make sure that students are getting a high-quality education and can exhibit the skills that employers are looking for. I think we’re well on our path to showing that with our first group of students in Kigali.”

According to the U.S. Embassy to Rwanda, 44,000 Rwandans currently attend university. Obtaining a degree from a U.S. institution is even more of a rarity, Russell said.

“My experience living here in Rwanda for the past three years is that only the elite of Rwanda are getting a U.S. degree and that’s through having the means to travel to the U.S.,” she said. “That’s a completely different group than the students we’re serving in Kigali, and even more so than the students we’re serving in Kiziba.”

The likelihood that refugees will have the chance to get a postsecondary degree is even slimmer. UNHCR offers scholarship programs to talented refugees, but the program serves only a tiny fraction of many millions of people. DAFI, a UNHCR higher education scholarship program, has helped 2,240 refugee students enroll in university in 41 asylum countries since 1992, according to the UNHCR website.

Rwanda’s refugee situation is particularly complicated. During the period of genocide in the 1990s, many Rwandans fled to other countries, where many still reside as refugees. At the same time, Rwanda has also absorbed a large number of refugees fleeing crises in neighboring countries.

Refugees in Rwanda, however, are eligible to apply for a work visa, which enables them to find employment in Rwanda. Having a degree means that graduates from Kiziba could potentially find higher-paying jobs, but it is still too early to say what a Kepler education will mean for them in the long run, Vianney said.

“It is a way to move from outside the camp and live other lives,” he said, adding that some might choose to stay, and possibly find work with NGOs at Kiziba.

Students at the longer-established Kigali campus have already found work in a variety of fields. Primarily, current students are working in sales and marketing, banking, and as teachers, said Dr. Aurore Umutesi, lead teacher at Kigali. Many go on to become instructors at Kepler and a small number go into agriculture.

What Kepler offers that differentiates it from the standard Rwandan university, Umutesi said, is its focus on independent thinking and problem-solving skills. Once they are accepted, students go through a summer bridge program, a foundational year to solidify their professional and technology skills, and in their second year begin a work internship.

“It’s not common for the students in Rwandan universities to seek jobs while they are studying,” Umutesi said. “It’s very different from what Kepler does.”

“I definitely feel like Kepler has helped them, because we focus a lot on professional competencies and skills that will apply to any job out there,” she added.

Barrett Nash, who is a co-founder of SafeMotos, a motorcycle taxi startup based in Kigali, said he has seven Kepler graduates and current students on staff, employed in a variety of capacities.

“Kepler students have not just transformed SafeMotos, they built it,” he said. “From Day One they have been with the founders and where the founders’ work ended and the Kepler students began is invisible.”

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at cmorris@diverseeducation.com.

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