Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) is paving the way as one of the first American institutions to grant online degrees to students living in refugee camps.
Sixteen students in Rwanda graduated with associate’s degrees from SNHU in partnership with Kepler, a nonprofit university program based in Africa, in the Kiziba refugee camp. This makes the graduates the first students to earn a U.S.-accredited online associate’s degree while also living in a refugee camp.
The students’ graduation at the Kiziba camp marks the beginning of possibilities for economic and social mobility for the students; it is something unusual for displaced refugee groups.
SNHU reports that the refugee crisis has displaced 65.3 million people worldwide. Currently, only one percent of the refugee population has access to higher education, according to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Many of the people at Kiziba Refugee Camp, including most of the 16 SNHU students, have been living there for nearly 20 years, the university says. SNHU hopes to challenge what people think refugees can do and added an additional 25-student cohort at the Kiziba campus last year, bringing the total number of students served to 50.
“At SNHU, we believe that access to high-quality higher education is a fundamental human right,” according to a university publication by Chrystina Russell and Nina Weaver that was posted on June 20. “But today, as we celebrate our newest graduates on World Refugee Day, we are reminded that higher education continues to be out of reach for millions of refugees around the globe.”
Russell, who is vice president for Global Engagement at SNHU, and Weaver, who is director of Refugee Education Programs at SNHU, both coordinate and oversee the partnership between SNHU and Kepler. They note that as a result of the higher education gap for refugee populations, global inequality increases.
While access to higher education has been a challenge for young people affected by the refugee crisis, students in the Kiziba camp assert that despite the challenges, many refugees are “hardworking, motivated … and can pursue higher education if given the opportunity,” Russell and Weaver said in the article.
Now, all 16 Kiziba graduates are moving on to get their bachelor’s degrees with SNHU and Kepler.
Alicia Mukerete is one of several graduates who are using their degrees to “develop corporate social media marketing campaigns” and “work with national NGO’s to improve agriculture and health in Rwanda,” Russell and Weaver added.
Sadiki Bamperineza, another graduate, works for tech start-up company Safe Motos, and said she hopes that her cohort’s “success will open the chance to other people who live the same life” that the graduates do at the refugee camp.
Last year, Diverse reported on the early start of the programs at the Kiziba camp and at the Kigali campus—the first SNHU and Kepler program for refugees established in 2013. Kigali’s campus boasted a progressive education model, graduating 16 students with bachelor’s degrees and 97 more with associate degrees.
The results of the first campus inspired the launch of a second campus at Kiziba refugee camp two years later with 25 students. The SNHU-Kepler program in Kiziba works to develop a blended learning model that combines online content, in-person courses, and employment training.
The program model “was really inspired by the creation of a competency-based degree here [at SNHU] where we were really looking at an innovative way to use competencies that employers want students to have to build a degree,” Russell told Diverse in a phone interview. “It made a lot of sense to try such a flexible and innovative program in a space where we know there’s a lot of talented students, but not high access to education.”
SNHU’s partnership with Kepler allows students at the Kiziba or Kigali campus to earn degrees in Communications with a focus on Business, Health Care Management, or Management. Kepler also says it expects to expand its focus on business and IT in the next two years.
Jean Marie Vianney told Diverse in 2016 that students found Kepler “to be an opportunity that just comes once.” Selection for the program is “very competitive” and some years, SNHU and Kepler have received roughly 7,000 applications, according to Russell.
Overcoming challenges through collaboration has proven to be an essential part of the SNHU and Kepler program’s success at Kiziba.
Program officials have made strides to reach gender equality within the program by addressing the social challenges that women face in parts of Africa. These challenges can include having to do chores before homework, having to handle family matters, or not having the social status of a man all-together, Russell and Weaver told Diverse.
To address the challenges, SNHU and Kepler staff separate the genders to fully support both men and women in the program, Russell said.
Other challenges include having adequate electricity, having high-quality computers, and getting students prepared for college-level English because it is not many students’ first language, Russell added.
Weaver added that Rwanda’s fairly generous policies for refugees—the right to work, and freedom of movement—have been crucial to the SNHU and Kepler partnership program.
“After refugee students graduate from our program, they’re still able benefit from our employment program and our internship program,” Weaver told Diverse. They are “able to go on and get work and make contributions economically to the whole society and to be able to improve their lives and continue developing professionally through those opportunities.”
SNHU and Kepler hope to serve as a model for other colleges and universities to provide higher education to displaced refugee students amid the global refugee crisis. The graduates plan to push forward as pioneers for a new mode of education in the face of adversity.
“Even though there are different challenges living in a refugee camp, we have the ability to handle them,” Eugenie Manirafasha, a SNHU graduate living in Kiziba Refugee Camp, said in the university publication. “Now we are getting skills to plan a bright future, not to always be refugees without any hope.”