Joseph was one of the first students Laura Kaub advised when she began working at the African Leadership Academy, an organisation that supports the development of promising young leaders across Africa.
He was a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who Kaub describes as “an extraordinary young man who had been through extraordinarily horrible circumstances”.
The odds of making it to college or university were stacked against Joseph. According to the UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency) only 5% of refugees have access to higher education, compared to 39% of non-refugees.
“I remember him sitting across the desk from me and he was like I just want to go to college and I don’t know where to start,” Kaub said.
Kaub’s role at the time was focused on helping prospective students like Joseph navigate the complicated world of international admissions – from finding the right institution to applying for funding to physically travelling abroad (many refugees lack passports and other necessary legal documents).
So where is Joseph now? With help from Kaub and her colleagues at the ALA, Joseph attended – and graduated – university. He currently works at the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, supporting refugee students to access tertiary education.
Kaub with Joseph Munyambanza, Mastercard Scholars Program, and Christopher Khaemba, inaugural Dean of African Leadership Academy.
“That’s kind of winning,” Kaub said. “When you see someone go off to a university where they’re a really good fit and they thrive, that is the best. And then to see them actually turn around and get involved in that work is the cherry on top.”
Earlier this year, Kaub took on a new role heading up Duolingo English Test’s latest program, which – during the pilot phase – plans to empower 25 refugee students to enrol into universities.
The project has been designed to support the UNHCR’s 15by30 initiative, which aims to increase refugee participation in higher education to 15% by 2030.
As well as directly increasing the number of refugee students attending university, Duolingo wants to help build the capacity of the UNHCR’s staff and local officers so that they have the connections and framework to support more refugees into higher education in the future.
Kaub with five MasterCard Foundation Scholars from her program at ALA
Kaub hasn’t always worked with such disadvantaged students. Before joining the ALA, she worked in the admissions team at a “highly-selective” liberal arts college in America.
“It was such a privilege,” she said. “I got to travel to all parts of the world and tell students all about that amazing institution.”
But Kaub found it disheartening that the college was only reaching the wealthiest of international students.
“I was feeling much more like a gatekeeper than a gate-opener, especially at an institution with limited financial aid. As generous as they could be, there’s so many more wonderful students out there who need financial support,” she said.
And so, Kaub crossed to the other side of both the desk and the planet, moving from the USA to South Africa to begin working at the ALA.
Kaub with Ntakamaze Nziyonvira, co-founder and executive director of refugee organisation CIYOTA.
But opening gates for disadvantaged students isn’t straightforward. Lack of information, lack of financial aid, and the “inflexibility” of the admissions process are a few of the barriers in the way of low-income and forcibly-displaced international students.
Kaub is critical of universities for this.
She is disparaging of how many of them restricted their financial aid for international students during the pandemic, even when their endowments continued to grow.
She denounces their often-impenetrable admissions processes that only work for students who can “fly to a whole other country to take the TOEFL or the SAT”.
But Kaub is also hopeful that higher education can – and will – change.
“I think not enough universities are being brave and innovative”
“I’d really love for universities to take a look at their processes from the perspective of a low-income international student or a refugee and say, ‘OK, what can we just get out of the way?’” she said.
“I think not enough universities are being brave and innovative and looking at how they can make this process itself easier”.
Kaub is adamant that colleges and universities shouldn’t see refugee students as a burden. Most institutions, she argues, already have the mechanisms in place to support them.
“It’s probably not different from what you’re already doing for some students on your campus,” she said.
“The low income student from the town next door may need the same bit of additional academic refresher as the kid who’s coming from the Central African Republic.”
Kaub wants to hear from universities that are interested in supporting refugee students or would like to make their English language testing more accessible. After all, a more diverse cohort can benefit everyone.
“Students from these different backgrounds, including really troubled backgrounds, have all of this perspective and wisdom and resilience and determination and dedication to their studies,” Kaub said.
“They bring so much to the community and they can enrich the education so much for the other students at the university”.