Reflections from a decade of expanding higher education for refugees - removing barriers at entry

By Nathalie Munyampenda
On 23 June 2024 at 10:00

Three days ago, we celebrated World Refugee Day and we stand in solidarity with the young refugees we serve, celebrating their agency and resilience. We know of their courage first hand. While we have been around for 20 years, 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 and training for refugees. Over the last two days, I shared how we repackaged our proven model to serve young refugees and what we have learned in supporting refugees transitioning to employment.

The third lesson we have learned in the last nine years is that our successes should be shared in order to multiply impact. While the lessons we’ve shared thus far focus on supporting refugee youth to succeed in higher education and transition to the world of work, the barriers to even accessing higher education are tremendous. Today, only 6% of young refugees have access to higher education, while the global average is 42% for youth not facing forced displacement. In most refugee hosting countries, language, cost, inconsistent or unavailable information on academic and scholarship programs, lack of support during the application process, and movement restrictions constrain the number of qualified young refugees who are able to participate in higher education opportunities.

Kepler addressed access to our higher education programs for refugees through the creation of a preparatory program for high school students and recent graduates. Its early success pushed us in 2018 to create Iteme, bridge in Kinyarwanda, that provides digital and soft skills, advocacy and access to information, and individualized advising for youth to access any available tertiary or career opportunity. We recently added examination preparation to our program so our trainees can do well in national exams, a perquisite for entering higher education in the countries we operate in. There was a clear gap in services for many refugee youth at this pivotal transition, and Kepler saw an opportunity to use its expertise in support of the broader ecosystem.

We wanted to do more and joined forces with a partner who had a clear vision to support displaced youth. In 2021, Kepler and the Mastercard Foundation partnered to expand the Iteme preparation program across Rwanda into Ethiopia and a third country soon to thousands of young refugees. We have served 1,364 students to date, 56% of whom are young women, and Iteme graduates have secured almost 600 scholarships to tertiary institutions. Our 2023 cohorts have already reached a 75% success rate in accessing tertiary education or employment opportunities. This is more than 12X the global average. Iteme graduates have gone on to study at numerous institutions beyond Kepler College, including Ashesi University, University of Rwanda, African Leadership University, and United States International University.

Iteme was created to be low-cost and scalable while also providing guidance and support at the level of the individual. Kepler’s team recognized the complexities involved with everything from accessing and understanding online scholarship applications to applying for travel documents and we designed the program to allow for this level of intensive support. Program staff also support tertiary education partners to understand the complexities refugees face and what creative accommodations can be put in place.

The Iteme staff are recent bachelor’s degree graduates from the communities we serve who complete a paid fellowship or internship, both of which allow them to gain relevant professional experience and build their resume. Kepler has found that the key to the Iteme experience is empowering refugee youth to give back to their communities while providing a living wage. The staff share common experiences with our students, understand their lived realities, and serve as role models.

As we look to the future, our reflections on the past ten years serve as a guide for expanding access to higher education and employment for refugees, ensuring that more young people in vulnerable situations have the opportunity to achieve their potential and contribute to their communities. We are always happy to share our experience in order to multiply the opportunities and impact for the forcibly displaced. This is true solidarity.

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