I write this blog while on a flight to Beirut, where I’ll meet our dynamic duo of Chrystina Russell and Nina Weaver, the fearless and passionate leaders of our effort to bring American college education to refugees around the world. We’re meeting with our partner in Lebanon, the American University of Beirut (seen as the Harvard of the region), and will spend time in the Beqaa Valley, which has an enormous refugee population. With $10m of funding, we plan to expand the very good work we are doing in the Kiziba Refugee Camp of Rwanda to three other locations, phase one of a more ambitious multi-year goal of being in twenty camps and educating tens of thousands of refugees.
The need is enormous. The global displaced population has ballooned to over 65m and only 1 percent have access to higher education. We plan to build out programs in construction management, front line health care, counseling, and in other areas that the refugee population will need to rebuild their devastated communities. It may not feel this way, but someday the war in Syria will end and people will go back and we need to give them the skills to prosper and start anew. Our programs are also a source of hope, and by partnering with employers to do internships, including digital internships, we hope refugees can be a source of much needed brainpower and skills in their host countries. In Rwanda, our refugee graduates are coveted by local employers — they are that good.
The question I often get is “Why SNHU?” On one level, my response is, “Who else?” We innovate and rethink education like few other institutions, and success in this formidable challenge will require both. In ample amounts.
So we are bringing our low cost CBE degree to the table, but also exploring machine learning for assessment, and working with trusted on-the-ground partners. We also do scale better than most nonprofits, so the prospects of tens of thousands of students does not deter us. We do that now. In an industry where status is tied to exclusion, we live to bring education to the underserved. It’s in our institutional DNA. So I’d ask again, “Who else?”
On another and more personal level, my experience of visiting Kiziba Refugee Camp in 2015 was searing. On a remote hilltop, up a rutted dirt road, more than 17,000 refugees – mostly young people – live on 33 cents per day amidst squalor and mud huts with faded blue UN tarps for roofs. We visited with SNHU Trustees and students and brought toys and balls and such for the kids. A near riot broke out as children clawed and punched each other over not just the toys, but the mere plastic wrappers they came in. Guards waded into the crowd swinging sticks to break it up. It was appalling and we felt embarrassed and naive. We met with students to discuss the idea of bringing our program into the camp and I was haunted by the hopelessness and desperation in their eyes. I’ve visited tough places before – slums in India, a prison in Kenya, clinics in Cambodia – but Kiziba was the hardest.
As we later drove down the hill, the truck was silent, but for the quiet crying of some of the students. I couldn’t sleep that night and somewhere around 3 a.m., I finally got up and looked for something to read, to distract myself. A previous guest at the lodge had left a Vanity Fair magazine and I Ieafed through it with growing outrage, page after page touting $10,000 watches and $5,000 handbags. I grew up Catholic and with whatever innate guilt and other baggage comes with it, I’ve always valued its sense of complicity. The sense that our acts matter, have moral weight, and that we are connected to each other in our flawed humanity. I saw that ethos play out over and over again with my parents, who were always quick to give a helping hand to anyone in need. They took in more kids than I can count, sometimes for years, and my father would give his last dollar to a guy with his hand outstretched.
By the time the sun came up that next morning in Rwanda, I knew we had to act. In retrospect, I’m sure this was Chrystina’s plan all along. Bring us there, let us experience the camp and see the need, and know that we’d have to join her in doing something about it. How could we not? So one answer to the question of “Why SNHU?” is that we were there and there was no choice. There’s nothing noble about it. Noble is perhaps doing something when you do not have to. We had no choice, so call it “duty” instead. And maybe mission. Because that is what SNHU does.