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Pathways to Education, Livelihood, and Hope

Migration Summit keynote explored how systems-wide collaboration in education and employment can address effects of global displacement

Photo by Brooke Bell on Unsplash

By Duyen Nguyen

The 2022 Migration Summit keynote session, “Pathways to Education, Livelihood, and Hope,” featured opening remarks from MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “When you have to leave in a hurry, education is all you can take with you,” Reif said, sharing a lesson he’d learned from his parents, who fled Eastern Europe in 1938. While digital technologies have transformed how we teach and how we learn, Reif explained, the truth of that lesson remains unchanged today.

The session explored how agile continuous education pathways and systems-wide collaboration can address the effects of unprecedented global displacement on the educational and employment landscape. Vice President for Open Learning Sanjay Sarma gave a keynote address, followed by a panel discussion featuring MIT faculty Azra Akšamija and Admir Masic and MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT) learner Pavel Ilin. Describing the changing nature of education and work, Sarma called for new and flexible pathways to higher education that account for the specific circumstances of refugees, displaced learners, and other under-resourced communities.

“The challenge right now is degrees are monolithic. They’re like those gigantic rocks at Stonehenge or in other megalithic sites. What we need is a much more granular version of education. Bricks were invented several thousand years ago but we don’t really have that yet formally and extensively in education,” he said.

Agile Continuous Education (ACE), pioneered by MIT Open Learning, exemplifies this model of flexible learning. ACE combines online courses, in-person learning experiences like bootcamps and workshops, and apprenticeship opportunities, offering learners more adaptable options to pursue education and career development. In the ACE model, learners earn degrees and credentials that can be verified digitally, ensuring that “your degree can’t be taken away from you,” Sarma said. MIT is one of the founders of the Digital Credentials Consortium, a global initiative to build an infrastructure of verifiable digital credentials that will transform people’s ability to take their education with them.

For Pavel Ilin, a software engineer and MIT ReACT alum who shared his story during the panel discussion, the inability to prove his educational credentials prevented him from finding meaningful employment when he was forced to relocate from his home country of Russia to the United States. Ilin had begun a PhD program but could not even demonstrate that he’d graduated from high school without access to verifiable credentials. Admir Masic, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and ReACT faculty founder, also emphasized the importance of being able to prove one’s educational achievements. As a teenage refugee from Bosnia, Masic explained that he was initially denied access to education in Croatia, where his family had relocated. But through his mother’s persistence and with a certificate proving that he’d completed elementary school, he was eventually able to audit classes at the local high school, which opened up a new path for him.

Displacement not only disrupts refugees’ education and their lives, but also leads to the loss of culture, explained Azra Aksamija, associate professor of architecture, during the panel discussion. Through the MIT Future Heritage Lab, Aksamija has worked to bridge the needs of humanitarian aid and cultural preservation. Having collaborated with Syrian refugees on efforts to support crisis-affected communities, Aksamija stressed the need for transcultural collaboration in designing new pathways to education, livelihood, and hope. “We don’t have to do everything ourselves,” she said, adding that “who is teaching whom is important.”

President Reif told the panelists and Migration Summit attendees, “The work that you are doing empowers people who have lost everything, to build skills, enrich their lives, lift up their communities and above all, envision a better future.”

The Migration Summit, organized by MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT), Na’amal, Karam Foundation, Paper Airplanes, and the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL), runs from April 1–30 and features panels, workshops, storytelling, and more from MIT faculty, refugee learners, and experts and advocates from around the world. View the full calendar of events and register: https://react.mit.edu/migrationsummit/

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