Through ReACT, refugee learners become “CEOs of their own lives”
Computer and data science graduates learned to forge their own destinies while gaining employable skills
By Duyen Nguyen | MIT Open Learning
For graduates of the MIT Refugee Action Hub’s (ReACT) computer and data science (CDS) certificate program, commencement means more than the completion of courses, workshops, and internships — it establishes the students as pioneers of a new, empowering educational model.
During a virtual commencement ceremony that streamed live on Jan. 28, Vice President for Open Learning Sanjay Sarma addressed the graduates as “the CEOs of [their] own lives,” highlighting their initiative and determination to overcome the challenges that communities in crisis face in accessing educational and professional opportunities.
New skills, new opportunities
Selected from over 1,000 applicants from 42 countries, the 28 members of this year’s class are the second cohort to complete the yearlong program. Many of the graduates tuned in to the celebration from Amman, Jordan, where the CDS certificate program first launched in 2018. Others joined from other countries in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. An accomplished, highly motivated group, this year’s graduates earned internships at multinational companies and global humanitarian agencies such as Hikma, Samsung, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
All are familiar with “the hunger for knowledge” that motivates displaced learners around the world to overcome adversity, says Admir Masic, ReACT’s faculty founder and the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Career Development Assistant Professor in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. ReACT was inspired by Masic’s own journey as a teenage refugee from Bosnia.
Mohammad Hizzani, a member of the graduating class, credits ReACT with giving him the resources to realize his potential. “ReACT gave me not just the knowledge, it gave me access to opportunities I never dreamed of,” he shared at the ceremony.
As an intern with UNICEF, Hizzani drew on the knowledge he gained from two MITx computer programming and data science courses to write codes to analyze data gathered by the organization’s teams. “ReACT gave me confidence, it gave me hope — [it was] where people finally started to appreciate my intelligence, my skills, and my hard work.” Hizzani is currently a PhD student in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Lisbon, Portugal.
Preparing for an agile future
Since its founding in May 2017, ReACT has created two free learning programs for refugees, delivered wherever they are in the world: the CDS program and a track in the MITx MicroMasters program in data, economics, and development policy. Combining online and in-person learning with paid professional internships, both programs give students innovative education-to-employment paths.
For many learners, the traditional four-year model of higher education is out of reach. For others, it’s a struggle to keep up with the ever-evolving future of work. In his speech to the graduates, Sarma stressed that, “The way we work is changing very rapidly. No longer is it going to be enough to get educated for four years and then be ready for life. The fact is you have to be educated, and you have to educate yourself, every day of your life.” It seems clear that this cohort is up to the challenge: Hala Fadel MBA ’01, ReACT co-founder and a member of the MIT Corporation, noted that these learners are “driven to achieve,” despite early and sometimes ongoing hardship.
ReACT joined MIT Open Learning in June 2018. Since then, it has become a touchstone of the organization’s larger vision around agile education: a model of learning that empowers learners with flexible options. As plans for a third CDS class in Jordan progress, the ReACT programs’ success signals a future in which more educational and professional pathways will be available for displaced learners and learners from under-resourced parts of the world.
As Masic remarked, “We live in a new world where education has no borders.” With their commitment to excellence despite all odds, it seems clear that the ReACT graduates’ potential for future success is equally boundless.
Originally published on MIT News on February 26, 2020.