Refugee students celebrate their graduation ceremony for their associate degrees from Southern New Hampshire University. (image credit: Alex Buisse)

Bright and early the campus opens, class starts at 2:45 p.m., and then there’s some time to do homework. This is the same Monday through Friday for a group of SNHU students, except these students aren’t at the Manchester, NH campus. They are in Karongi, Rwanda.

In Kigali and the Kiziba refugee camp, Kepler, a nonprofit higher education program, helps African students (both refugee and non-refugee learners) earn college degrees.

SNHU’s involvement began in 2013 when Kepler Kigali began. SNHU became involved with the program at Kiziba starting in 2015 when President Paul Leblanc, along with several SNHU students and board members, visited the sites, leading to a sponsorship under SNHU’s College for America Program.

This past July, SNHU launched an initiative to expand the program, stimulating it with a 10 million dollar grant from anonymous donors. The university’s goal is to open three new sites in the next two years in Kenya, Lebanon and South Africa.

Chrystina Russell, Vice President for Global Engagement, has worked closely with the program from its inception, originally as the co-founder and Chief Academic Officer of Kepler. Working with this program, she travels between the SNHU locations in Manchester as well as all over the world.

Speaking from the Kiziba Refugee Camp in Rwanda, Russell shared the events at the Kiziba Camp’s opening week. This is the Kiziba Refugee Camp’s third year of taking in students with their opening ceremonies.

Like SNHU’s home campus in Manchester, NH, both the Kigali and Kiziba sites host opening events to help acclimatize students and their family to the academic culture while celebrating the start of their educational endeavors. These events include an opening ceremony, Rwandan dancing, alumni speeches, games and an overview of rules and expectations.

Russell shared the general feelings of excitement at the site with the start of this new class, and described the students’ dedication and motivation. “Students [in Rwanda] are extremely motivated. I think sometimes in the U.S., students who have been systematically let down by institutions can feel like, ‘What is the point of school? Why am I doing this?’ Here, we don’t see that issue.”

Across the board, when speaking about the challenges they faced or are facing within the program, current students and alumni all referenced their experiences with technology. From a knowledge and skills standpoint, the students described the technological shock, and from a physical standpoint, described the unreliability of power and connection.

Russell highlighted some of the solutions being explored to mitigate these technological needs which include “tak[ing] more of the content offline through devices that simulate Local Area Networks; working consistently with internet providers when there is a problem; hir[ing] a Kiziba student to troubleshoot the internet problems with a tech lead in Kigali; and work[ing] with solar providers to try and find an affordable solar energy solution.”

Yvette, a course facilitator with the program in Kiziba, is all too familiar with the challenges these students face, and, as a part of the 2013 cohort, is able to address these based on her personal experience. Starting the program as a student, Yvette described the struggles she faced using technology and speaking English, but saying that it “was a good opportunity to learn new things and gain new experiences.”

Refugee students learning in their classroom at Kiziba refugee camp, Rwanda. (Image credit: Alex Buisse)

As a course facilitator with a student’s perspective, Yvette says that she utilizes “the techniques course facilitators used when [she] was a student to help [her students]really understand [and acquire] new skills.”

On a more personal level, Yvette is able to use her experience to help guide and support students. “Because I was a student, I know some of the different challenges a student faces and how to address them so students learn well.” In the mindset of an “academic coach,” Yvette can empathize with how the students feel and what kind of challenges and obstacles they will encounter.

Severein, another teacher at the Kiziba campus and alumnus of the 2013 cohort, shared the importance of his role as a course facilitator and a former student of the program. Severein joined the program as a student for the “opportunity to be able to get a national degree from SNHU.” When asked about joining the program he said he simply thought, “This is going to be magical.”

Working as a course facilitator, Severein supports and guides students in developing their professional development skills, as well as teaching English courses which include “writ[ing] papers, essays, paragraphs” and other foundational skills.

The program creates an academic as well as personal community, dedicated to the skill acquisition and success of all of its students. Moise, a recent graduate experiencing all the excitements of a recent commencement, spoke to the incoming students, and to all potential students regarding his experience, the value of education and the importance of the program.

“After graduation it is really possible to get employment and live the life you never dreamed of before. “

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