Newest Ashoka Fellows Provide Youth with Access to a Quality Education

Submitted by: John Converse Townsend on 08/22/11

A country’s young people are its most important asset. They are the future of a nation; providing them access to a quality education should be a top priority. Of course, there are many obstacles — you don’t have to be an expert to know that there are problems in education to be solved in all countries. Luckily, there are also social entrepreneurs stepping up to the challenge, including members of the newest class of Ashoka Fellows.

In Switzerland, the education system does not fully financially support students’ education, which results in wasted intellectual and creative potential for thousands of people. The financial aid process operates according to Switzerland’s federalist system and is often decentralized and disintegrated. The system frequently leaves out students who are mobile, are continuing their education, are pursuing non-traditional tracks, or are immigrants. Studienaktie is stepping in to help individuals who have the motivation to pursue their education, especially those who are not covered by state funding schemes or elite stipends provided by private foundations. Led by president Lars Stein, Studienaktie bases its selection process on criteria such as responsibility and determination. The organization is bringing financial solutions to education by creating a new market for investors: Investment in people.

In India, one problem lies in geography. Migration from rural to urban areas is taking place on an unprecedented scale due to a lack of quality education and job opportunities. As a result, there is a growing disparity in income, infrastructure, access to education, health, and information access between urban and rural populations. The significant disconnect between education and skills needed in rural India is a major contributor towards the migration to urban areas. Sunanda Mane, through her organization Lend-a-hand India (LAHI), is working with local school management to identify and train instructors from within the community, who are typically local micro-entrepreneurs in the selected fields. Through the program, students achieve experiential learning through apprenticeships while also serving the needs of their community.

In the United States, there is an increased focus on standardized testing, and on the subjects of math and reading. Music education, like recess, is frequently considered a "nice to have" offering and cut out of school budgets. In this context, how do we make sure music isn’t left out of our children’s education? Little Kids Rock is answering this question by inspiring teachers of all backgrounds and equipping then with free instruments, instruction, tools, and a peer community. An eight-person organization based in New Jersey, Little Kids Rock works with teachers and funders across the country. David Wish started the organization to redefine the methods of musical instruction; his strategy is to engage with schools and districts to get buy-in and support from teachers and students as well as school administrators.

There are also challenges facing education systems outside of an individual country’s borders. The world is increasingly interconnected globalizing rapidly; it is becoming obvious to political leaders, business executives, and the general public that global citizenship and global competitiveness go hand in hand. But the recent, increased emphasis on test preparation has produced generations of graduates who are generally less culturally competent, less globally literate, and less prepared to engage with, and think critically and creatively about, the world’s most intractable problems.

Immediately after 9-11, Dana Mortenson and Madiha Murshed experienced alarming levels of xenophobia in New York. They began to seriously question whether the United States was educating its citizens to be globally competent. A field-review study provided a solution: Why not mainstream global competency within the U.S. school system? Mortenson and Murshed co-founded World Savvy to realize this vision. A citizen-sector organization established in 2002, World Savvy works in schools to foster an understanding of global competency as a set of skills, knowledge, values, attitudes, and behaviors applicable across disciplines. Global competency can be applied in any facet of the school experience; therefore, ensuring all players in a school ecosystem participate is critical to World Savvy’s approach.

You don’t have to be an expert to see that there are challenges facing education systems everywhere. But these social entrepreneurs are proving that anyone can be a part of making positive change.