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  • An Unexpected Education EvolutionFrom Uganda to the U.S. and Beyond
  • Eric Glustrom (bio)

Tune in to a debate today on global education and one will hear about the problems of access in the developing world, including 70 million children with no access to primary school and the revolution in higher education inspired by massive open-source online courses (MOOCs). Yet, I argue that an evolution is taking place in education that is not only about helping those 70 million children but about transforming the very purpose of education itself.

The Story

While in high school, I became involved in Amnesty International, through which I heard about a population of refugees living in Uganda who had come from the nearby warring countries of Sudan, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I wanted to learn more about these refugees and get a glimpse of what life was like in a much different part of the world. So, in the summer of 2002, at age 17, I traveled on my own to two refugee camps in western Uganda.

Many unexpected events occurring during my trip. Among the most memorable were distributing antimalarial medicine to several hundred sick refugees, and contributing to the removal of a corrupt commandant from the Kyangwali refugee camp who was beating, raping, and killing refugees. After returning home, I wrote a report about the conditions in the refugee camps and possible solutions to their problems, which has been used by several organizations.

The most unexpected aspect of my trip were the young people I met, including young men and women driven by a profound desire to solve the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had forced them to flee to Uganda, where they were working to bring peace to their homeland. The vision and passion of these youth was a manifestation of their tremendous potential. I wanted to do what [End Page 85] I could to help them unleash that potential, for it seemed clear that if anyone were going to solve the challenges in the DRC, it was the current generation of young people, like Benson Wereje, Joseph Munyambanza, and Mutezi Tamari.

I asked these youth what I could do to help them, and they responded that what they needed most was an education, which would prepare them to solve the problems in their community and their homeland. From these insightful words, Educate! was born.

Over the next several years, colleagues and friends helped me raise money doing everything from climbing 14,000-foot peaks to hosting dodge ball tournaments. With the funds we raised, Educate! was able to give 22 young refugees scholarships at high-quality high schools in Uganda. In the 11 years since, those young people have gone on to develop a powerful movement for nonviolent social change in their homeland, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is in the middle of one of the bloodiest conflicts facing the world since WWII. Their movement has been recognized by Bill Clinton, Ban Ki Moon, the World Economic Forum, and numerous others as a youth-led, grassroots movement that has tremendous potential to bridge divides and bring peace and prosperity to the DRC.

However, during those 11 years, Educate! learned that, while in school, these remarkable young people were being forced to memorize largely irrelevant facts, like the regions of Germany, simply because these points were part of Uganda’s national exam. Like many countries around the world, Uganda has an education system based heavily on memorization. We asked ourselves why some of the most remarkable young leaders in Uganda (and around the world) were being taken out of their communities to attend schools where their creativity is stifled and they are forced to memorize irrelevant facts. Take just one example: every high school student in Uganda memorizes the regions of Germany in preparation for the national exam. Such a rote memorization-based system only prepares the next generation to maintain the status quo. Why wasn’t their education providing an opportunity to practice and strengthen their leadership skills and preparing them to solve the conflict that has plagued their homeland?

Five years after granting our first scholarship, and following many...


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