Beyond the Classroom — 3 Lessons from Jamiya Mentorship

Courses alone are not enough. In today’s refugee crisis, the scale of which only appears to be worsening, students need more than lectures and assignments to reconnect to education. With a disruption of this magnitude and emotional impact, the provision of courses must be paired with additional support to account for what students endure outside the classroom. From our ongoing mentorship program along with the wisdom of a few Jamiya friends, we’ve gained three valuable insights on how similar programs can achieve the greatest impact.

1. In order for students to appreciate the value of mentorship, the program must be communicated and delivered in a way that’s relevant to their context

From the would-have-been-mentee perspective, Suhaib Ibrahim, a now practicing civil engineer in Illinois, discusses his experience as a student struggling to leave Syria 3.5 years ago: “I was applying for scholarships and kept getting rejection letters, not because I didn’t have good grades but simply because I didn’t know what a scholarship application was.” His persistence in re-applying and continuously researching the process helped him ultimately achieve his academic goals, but his fear is that too many of his peers back home are giving up, “I know they’re qualified; I know they’re talented — they just need some advice for something they’ve never been exposed to.”

In hindsight, Suhaib wishes he had the willing guidance of a mentor those 3.5 years ago. However, now in the midst of creating a career-development curriculum to be delivered alongside an official mentorship program, he realizes that reaching out to students and motivating them to participate is more difficult than he anticipated.

Dr. Paul O'Keeffe, who heads Jamiya mentorship affirms these challenges. The benefits of a mentor must be communicated clearly to students at the start of a program as, Paul notes, “even if the students are confident and capable, participation will broaden their horizons and afford them the opportunity to become more self-aware of their own abilities.” One mentor wrote to us that her student, following a long period of interrupted studies, needed someone to give her confidence in her abilities and encourage her to push through the course. The value of this guidance, which eventually helped keep her enrolled, must be imparted to students in alignment with their specific needs whether it is to bridge a long period of disrupted education or in Suhaib’s case, to facilitate an international application and transition process.

2. Don’t underestimate the importance of having mentors with shared backgrounds or aspirations as mentees

This idea resonates powerfully throughout Jamiya’s model, as leveraging the Syrian diaspora community has proven an invaluable resource of untapped skills and knowledge for our courses. We’ve already seen that our mentors, mostly Syrian academics from across the world enlisted on a voluntary basis, feel a strong sense of duty towards helping Syrian students of our applied IT course. By bringing the Syrian diaspora into the program, we are providing them a channel to contribute to and empower their own community.

In addition to benefiting the diaspora community, Suhaib emphasizes the importance of mentors providing cultural and contextual background and understanding. Mentors of shared backgrounds not only bridge a language gap but possess the empathy and affected history and ambition with which students can identify.

3. Build the mentorship program around technological platforms readily available and already in use by students.

Sarah Dryden-Peterson, associate Professor at Harvard Education, reflects on mentorship for refugees in Kenya:

“We find that students in Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya stay connected with former teachers and older peers through text messaging and social media, even when those teachers and peers have left the camps for studies or resettlement. These connections provide important sources of on-going mentoring: students ask questions about how to pursue higher education, they share their schoolwork for feedback, they have important conversations about navigating home responsibilities and further education.”

While traditional communication channels like Skype may often be inaccessible or require too much data, using applications already widely used in the region, which in the case of Jamiya students is Whatsapp, has helped solidify mentor-mentee relationships and will open a line of communication between them outside of set time tables and hopefully beyond the set program.

Ultimately, we look forward to seeing where this program leads us at the end of this course in November and look forward to continuing to build these relationships alongside future Jamiya Project launches.

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