The Class of 2021 had to overcome many challenges, but for graduates of a Southern New Hampshire University program for refugees, the realities of life in a refugee camp meant a near-daily struggle just to access the online courses and carve out time for schoolwork.
Southern New Hampshire University’s Global Education Movement brings the university’s online degrees to displaced people, including those living in refugee camps. The program pairs the project-based coursework of the online degree program with internships, in-person coaching and the computers and internet connection equipment students need.
There is internet access, but recent graduate Saida Aden said during a video conference last week that she had to wait until most people were sleeping to get enough bandwidth to log into her classroom. That often meant getting up at 3 a.m., she said — before another day that begins with a long line to fetch water in the morning, and grinds on with cooking, cleaning and caregiving responsibilities that Aden said tend to fall to women. But she managed to squeeze in the work, and completed her Southern New Hampshire University degree.
Aden said she never dreamed of going to college until the opportunity with Southern New Hampshire University came along. “I am so fortunate,” she said.
The Global Education Movement now reaches some 1,500 students in five countries, said university President Paul LeBlanc. About 3,500 have received their degrees.
“It is a reminder yet again that there is talent in every corner of the world,” LeBlanc said during a video conference last week with Aden and two other recent graduates. “And what there is distressingly a lack of is equal opportunity.”
All three Southern New Hampshire University graduates on the conference fled their homes amid war, and have been living as refugees for several years.
“As a refugee we are not allowed to be a normal student,” explained recent graduate Nour Maaz, who fled Aleppo, Syria with her family in 2014 and has been living as a refugee in Lebanon for seven years.
Host countries tend to place restrictions on refugees, said Maaz and Mohamed Hassan Mohamud, another recent graduate from Somalia who has spent nearly his whole life as a refugee in Kenya, but the program allows students to complete degrees in the camps.
Having a bachelor’s degree, especially one from an accredited American institution that will be recognized around the world, helped all three build a greater sense of agency in what can be a stifling, isolated existence.
A resident of a refugee camp often has to apply for a visa just to go to a nearby town, Mohamud said. There is a sense that the refugee camp is its own country, separate from Kenya. Mohamud has a job working in Nairobi, the capital, but he had difficulty renting an apartment there when landlords preferred to rent to Kenyan citizens. Politicians, he said, term the refugees terrorists, and have threatened to close the camp.
Still, Mohamud said, he is one of the lucky ones who has had access to higher education and work. The benefits are not just monetary, he said, but the sense of self-worth, the dignity of a business card with his name on it that identifies him as a researcher with Oxford University.
Maaz said she feels like the degree program is helping to prove that displaced people are not powerless.
“We can be leaders, we can be entrepreneurs,” she said. Maaz herself has started her own business, a quality-improvement company that helps businesses and hospitals find ways to operate more efficiently.
Aden agreed. Refugees aren’t helpless, she said, but have talent and skills and dreams. They can be part of the world, and they can compete globally.
“I am someone who can compete with global jobs, and have that career, and knowledge to make that future brighter,” Aden said. “I have the skills and confidence.”