Jihad Shojaeha has created a model to improve access to university education for poor and underprivileged students while ensuring and instilling seeds of social responsibility among youth. Through Jihad’s Student-to-Student Initiative, he works with partners to fund the education of underprivileged students to attend university in Palestine. Instead of paying back the money, students are required to give back to the community, by teaching and providing mentorship to primary and secondary school students in rural, poor, and marginalized areas.
The New Idea
Jihad is introducing an innovative approach to addressing the issue of unequal access to higher education in Palestine and also breaking the cycle of poverty. Though many underprivileged students are determined and willing to pursue higher education, they are denied the opportunity because they lack the funds to pay for tuition. Even when given highly subsidized loans, their families fail to meet the payment deadlines due to poverty and high unemployment rates in the country.
Through the Student-to-Student Initiative, Jihad provides the funding for underprivileged students to attend university in Palestine in exchange for teaching and providing mentorship to underprivileged primary and secondary school students. As poor students do not have the luxury of hiring private tutors—a common trend in the Middle East given the poor quality of public education—the university students create and run tutoring programs for primary and secondary school children throughout Palestine.
Jihad’s initiative is unique in that he provides funding and loans to underprivileged university students and requires them to “pay back” the money by giving back to their community in the form of community service. The grants are not given to students based on merit and grades, but on the need and desire of the students to continue their education. This grassroots approach builds the idea of volunteerism and civic engagement among students while also providing them with the necessary funds to continue their education. Jihad’s approach assists young adults to attain higher education, while at the same time, builds the academic base of a younger generation of school children.
In the Levant and the greater Arab world, education policies and decisions are highly centralized, regulated, and managed by a national Ministry of Education. The government coordinates the curriculum, textbooks, and regulations, and is responsible for recruiting and training teachers, professors, and staff for primary, secondary, and higher education facilities.
Over the years, the governments in the Levant have made considerable investments in the education system to raise the level of academic achievement amongst its burgeoning youth population. This emphasis on education has resulted in increased literacy rates in the Levant. Palestinians are the most educated population in the Arab region with youth literacy (ages 15 to 24) at 98.2 percent and adult literacy at 91 percent as of 2006. Jordan has the third lowest illiteracy rate in the Arab world, with 90 percent literacy according to a World Bank report in 2009. Lebanon is close behind with a literacy rate of 89.6 percent.
However, despite increased expenditures and an emphasis on education, there has been a large strain on resources as youth in the Levant continues to increase. This makes it difficult to maintain resources, infrastructure, and facilities and to provide the necessary services and appropriate education to the students. School and university infrastructure is left to deteriorate, as school buildings are not renovated. In Palestine, few new schools are built as permits for expansion or building are constantly turned down. Damaged schools lack toilets and water and electricity networks. Schools and universities lack essential education materials and basic items. Classrooms are overcrowded and operate on a shift-system. At the same time, it is difficult to maintain quality and relevance of education. According to the Arab Human Development Report 2002, “The most worrying aspect of the crisis in education is education’s inability to provide the requirements for the development of Arab societies.”
Furthermore, the Levant education expenditure is often allocated for primary and secondary education, instead of higher education. For example, the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education only spends 5.6 percent of its expenditure on higher education (2006 World Bank study). In Jordan, public expenditure for higher education has actually declined over the years while the number of university students has increased.
Recent economic and political conditions have led to an increase in college dropouts as a result of financial constraints. In Palestine, due to internationally imposed sanctions on the Palestinian government and high unemployment rates, students are finding it difficult to secure university fees and continue their education. According to UNDP indicators, poverty in the Palestinian Territories was as high as 68 percent in 2006. Education, once a natural right, is now considered a luxury. For example, in 2007 Birzeit University, Palestine’s second-largest university reported that nearly half the students, about 3,200, asked to be on a fee arrangement schedule. With already 1,500 students on a fee arrangement schedule, and only 300 of those students able to maintain their payments, the university had to reject the request of most of the students and required them to pay tuition in full.
To address the lack of financing for higher education in the Levant, most organizations grant scholarships to excelling students interested in pursuing further studies. Scholarships, however, are mostly geared toward supporting students who wish to study abroad and pursue graduate studies there. For instance, the Palestine Solidarity Initiative provides underprivileged Palestinian students the opportunity to fulfill their academic potential by encouraging and supporting their application for masters programs in the U.K. USAID and AMIDEAST also make scholarships available for Middle Eastern students wishing to study at American universities.
In 2008 the Bank of Palestine, in cooperation with a number of organizations including the World Bank and IFC, created a subsidized loaning structure that pays tuition fees upfront, but the students are required to pay back the amount over a period of eight years with lower interest rates.
Combining his years of experience and social activism working with a range of development organizations focused on youth and education initiatives, Jihad wanted to create a grassroots and community-based approach that would make education more universally-accessible, raise academic standards, and break the cycle of poverty. While working at Birzeit University’s Center for Continuing Education, Jihad launched his initiative, Student-to-Student in 2007.
Initially, the idea was to create a group of eight individual donors called the “Group 8” who would pool their monetary resources to fund a promising, underprivileged university student. Members of this group would then form their own Group 8 after the first cycle of scholarships were administered. Jihad set up Group 8 by visiting various organizations and convincing groups of employees to put aside a small portion of their monthly salary to finance the tuition of the chosen student. The university student grantee would “repay” it by volunteering their time teaching and mentoring a group of five to six primary and secondary school students in rural communities twice a week. Some of the conditions to maintain the scholarship is to ensure that they do not receive a failing mark and that the students the scholars mentor also perform well academically.
Jihad sponsored his first student in 2007. He quickly realized there were a number of obstacles in creating more and bigger Group 8s, as individuals had relatively low salaries and were resistant to give money without any return on investment. Jihad instead shifted the focus to recruiting local private companies and citizen organizations (COs) to sponsor university students. The university students must apply for the grant through a rigorous application process, which involves background research on their financial capacities and culminates in an interview with the selection committee of the Student-to-Student Initiative, composed of representatives of the potential sponsoring company and members of Jihad’s team. The selection committee ultimately chooses twenty students to sponsor from among an average of one hundred applicants.
Jihad has used the success of the program to attract a number of local Palestinian companies to provide tuition money. In 2009 Jihad established a relationship with the large private company, Aramex. Aramex is currently Jihad’s biggest donor, sponsoring about twenty students every semester for a total of US$10,000 since 2009. Jihad has established a relationship between the university and private companies, with companies providing tuition directly to the university. Furthermore, private companies receive tax benefits.
Since the program launched in 2007, Jihad has provided grants to 130 university students in seven universities in the West Bank and Gaza. In turn, the university students have taught, mentored, and given back to their communities, raising the academic levels for over 600 primary and secondary students in poor, rural areas of Palestine.
Jihad’s program has helped primary, secondary, and higher education students all over the West Bank and Gaza. Although due to the political situation in Gaza, Jihad and his team cannot physically go there, they sponsor students through several organizations in Gaza who manage and distribute the funds to the students.
Currently, Student-to-Student is an initiative that is not an established organization. Jihad and his dedicated team of six to eight volunteers work on the initiative in addition to their full-time jobs. Jihad works through a network of local organizations that supports them by providing a meeting space, supplies, materials, and resources. There is also a base of forty to fifty volunteers which Jihad and his team relies on to help implement and monitor the progress of the university students by getting a copy of the academic records of the scholars and the students they teach, and conducting visits to scholar’s tutorial sessions. Scholars are also asked to document their mentoring sessions and experience with pictures and reports. When scholars graduate, Student-to-Student Initiative will contact them to monitor how the scholarship has benefitted and helped them find a job to help their families. Jihad plans to establish Student-to-Student as an organization in Palestine.
To raise the profile of Student-to-Student, Jihad has participated in a number of regional conferences focusing on youth and has connected with local media outlets in Palestine. Recently, Jihad was interviewed by local television and radio stations to discuss his innovative work and its impact on the lives of hundreds of students. He has also produced a short documentary film about his work to increase awareness of the need for equal access to education in Palestine.
In ten years time, Jihad plans to expand his initiative to the rest of the Levant, starting with supporting studies of Palestinians that live in the refugee camps of Jordan and Lebanon and then expanding to include underprivileged groups and minorities. Furthermore, he will replicate his model throughout the Middle East by partnering with other organizations, providing training and follow-up support for them to implement his model.
Jihad was born and raised in Amman, Jordan in 1982. Of Palestinian origin, he and his family moved back to Palestine where he completed his high school and university education. From a young age, Jihad pursued social justice for youth, looking for ways to alleviate poverty and provide equal access and better educational opportunities for them.
While in Jordan, at the age of nine, Jihad participated in a youth conference organized by the Government of Jordan for 150 youth. At the end of the program, he was one of two participants given the Leadership Award. From then on, Jihad has continued to participate in youth-based community development activities in Palestine, taking leadership roles and organizing and facilitating groups of youth in development initiatives. While attending Birzeit University in Ramallah, Jihad continued to be actively involved in development work. He has led a number of training courses for youth in Palestine on a range of issues including sexual education, tolerance and acceptance of differing opinions, team building, communication, and leadership skill development.
During the Al-Aqsa Intifada Jihad had to stop attending university for several semesters to work full-time to personally fund his education. Furthermore, his parents and other siblings were working to fund his sister, who has mental disabilities, to attend a private school catered to her needs. With strained finances, Jihad’s parents urged him to transfer to a two-year technical college, which costs less than four-year university institutions. However, through resilience and perseverance, Jihad was able to save money and finish university, eventually also attaining a master’s degree. His own experience was one of his main inspirations behind starting the Student-to-Student Initiative.
After graduating from university in 2004, Jihad started leading training programs for the UNICEF-led “We Care” project and also became a trainer for the Palestinian Central Election Commission, Al-Aman Center for Psychological and Social Consulting, and the Center for Human Rights and Democratic Participation.
Jihad then worked for the Center for Continuing Education in the Unit for Learning Innovation at Birzeit University. During this time he launched the Student-to-Student Initiative; seeing the pressing problem of the lack of financial access to education among university students and how addressing this gap will radically impact Palestinian society. Currently, Jihad is a Synergos Fellow and the Ambassador for Palestinian Youth of the Fiker Foundation in Lebanon. He is also actively involved in Sharek, the biggest youth organization in the West Bank.