Reflections from a decade of expanding higher education for refugees

By Nathalie Munyampenda
On 21 June 2024 at 08:50

Every year, on the 20th of June, we celebrate World Refugee Day. For the last 20 years, Kepler has been dedicated to providing pathways to employment for vulnerable African youth. Next year will mark ten years since we began serving refugee populations. We are continually reflecting on our lessons learned and how they can benefit the expansion of higher education for refugees. I want to share three lessons we have learned so far.

When Kepler, in collaboration with SNHU’s Global Education Movement, and with the support of the IKEA Foundation, opened a campus in the Kiziba refugee camp in Western Rwanda, we had a decade of experience supporting Rwandans from vulnerable backgrounds to access higher education and succeed in the job market. The fundamental question we faced was how to translate a proven model for high-quality education to employment into a low-resourced, isolated, and protracted refugee camp setting. Spoiler alert: We succeeded! Our Kiziba campus has served over 393 students to date, with 91% of 159 bachelor degree graduates employed, resettled or doing graduate studies.

Kepler’s program in the Kiziba refugee camp mirrors what we offer on our campus in Kigali. So far we have also served 225 refugees on our Kepler campus in Kigali, with 78 already graduated. Admitted students participate in a foundation program, which equips them with the English, technology, and executive thinking skills necessary to succeed in the online bachelor’s degree program from SNHU or degrees from our very own Kepler College. Academic advisors regularly meet with students to further support their skills development through Kepler-created or curated modules. From day one, we focus on career readiness, modeling our classrooms after the world of work and providing explicit soft skills training.

The secret sauce is balancing high expectations with flexibility. A core element of the Kepler model is instilling professional competencies early and maintaining high standards for their consistent demonstration. This begins with basic expectations, such as punctuality and timely communication for lateness or absences, including a plan for catching up on missed learning. Assignments must be submitted on time, and students revise their work until they achieve mastery, reflecting the skills expected by employers.

However, working within the realities of daily life of refugees also requires significant flexibility. Our students face food insecurity, limited access to quality healthcare, and an ever-changing resettlement system while often bearing significant responsibilities at home. Our approach balances these realities with our goal of preparing students for professional success beyond the camp. We set a serious tone early on to shift students’ mindsets, emphasizing commitment through attendance and assignment completion in the first six weeks. We have clear non-negotiables to create a culture of high academic and professional expectations. Once students pass this initial phase, we provide more flexibility, including a mostly self-paced curriculum that facilitates leaves of absence for maternity, illness, or resettlement processes. At the same time, Kepler offers robust academic and mental health support, including weekly advising sessions, access to a full-time counselor, and specialized guidance for students at risk of dropping out.

Alumna Divine Nyiraburanga’s journey illustrates Kepler’s balance between high expectations and flexibility. Married with a child and working as a volunteer teacher, she faced challenges with English and limited time for studies. Academic advisors worked closely with her, providing additional tutoring and guidance for managing her work load. When Divine’s second child arrived, she took a three-month maternity leave during which Kepler staff visited her to keep her connected with the community and provided resources to practice English. They helped her manage challenges, like arranging financial assistance for someone to bring her baby to campus for breastfeeding and making the decision to leave teaching to focus full time on her studies. The Careers team later secured a remote internship in Communications for her, allowing her to stay in the camp and care for her children. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, Divine started a business importing traditional fabrics, which enabled her to move outside the camp and have the flexibility she wanted to focus on her family.

Yesterday, I shared more on the lessons we have learned supporting refugees to transition to employment. https://en.igihe.com/education/article/reflections-from-a-decade-of-expanding-higher-education-for-refugees

Editorial note: Nathalie Munyampenda is the Chief Executive Officer at Kepler

Alex Buisse / Kepler