Nick Kristof’s moving column today on Paul Lorem, a 21-year old South Sudanese refugee who made his way to Yale, recalled Frank Bruni’s recent column on Energy Maburutse, a 21-year old disabled Zimbabwean student who made his way to Lynn University in Florida. They both shared incredible triumph over long odds, personal sacrifice, and humility and wonderment regarding their current station. But while I would never turn down a chance to hear about someone like Paul or Energy, the real stories that would change South Sudan or Zimbabwe won’t be when one student gets a great university education in the US, but when thousands and thousands of South Sudanese or Zimbabweans are getting a great university education in their home country.
In my day job as Executive Director at Generation Rwanda, I interact with hundreds of students with the brains and drive to get to Yale if those doors were open. But they’re not, and more importantly, if you’re the top student in your high school, it shouldn’t take a string of miracles to get you to a good college education. Universities in Africa struggle with disorganization and academic inconsistency, but the biggest problem of all is lack of access. With access to college loans essentially non-existent and a year of tuition often running three or four times a country’s average income, local university can be as distant a goal as Yale itself. While primary and secondary education typically take center stage in discussions of education in the developing world, some governments are recognizing how important higher education is to building domestic capacity and curbing brain drain. Here’s hoping others take note.