Assisting former street-connected children in Uganda to access higher education
Child Restoration Outreach Support Organization (CROSO) has provided access to post-secondary education since 2007, through a scholarship programme available to former street-connected children in Uganda. CRO (Child Restoration Outreach), a partner organisation of CROSO, works with children living and/or working on the streets to provide life-changing support throughout primary and secondary school. However, funding was limited for any further academic expenses. As CRO’s programme manager, explained, “Most of the donors prefer supporting the children in primary…the challenge is (funding) after secondary and yet we feel these children should attain quality education”.
CROSO was founded to raise the funds necessary for higher education to become a reality for the children who had successfully completed secondary school. Scholarship programmes in and of themselves are neither new nor innovative, but we believe CROSO has established several important programmatic structures that are specific to supporting former street-connected children.
It was clear from the beginning that a traditional scholarship, offering tuition fees only, was not enough. Having been street-connected, CROSO scholars do not have access to financial support for even their basic needs, so the CROSO scholarship also provides funding for housing, food, books, supplies and graduation fees. In the last 10 years, the programme has evolved to also encompass the areas of communication, relationship building, academic tools and employment preparation.
Creating channels for communication
CROSO is a US-based organisation. When we started, inconsistent electrical supply, and limited internet access restricted communication between the CROSO office and the scholars in Uganda. We could not expect the scholars to communicate directly and so we only communicated with CRO staff members. Over time, the frequency of communication with CRO staff has increased, and improved access to technology means that contact can be made directly with the scholars. Consequently, we have established the CROSO liaison programme. Each CROSO scholar is paired with a liaison (or mentor) in the US who communicates monthly with via email. These relationships have several positive impacts: the scholars feel more supported and more connected to CROSO, and CROSO has developed additional accountability as we are able to better understand the scholars’ experiences. Expectations have therefore been set for regular monthly communication with both CRO staff and the scholars.
Members of the CROSO Board of Directors make regular visits to Uganda to listen to our partners and scholars. These visits have helped strengthen our relationships and the impact of our programmes. The visits also provide the board with an understanding of the context in which the programme is conducted when making strategic decisions.
These trips also provide an opportunity to visit scholars at their college and university campuses, to talk with their professors and gain interesting insights into how they see the scholars in comparison to their classmates. While the scholars are often concerned about the stigma of having been street-connected following them to campus, the professors and administrators have said the opposite. A number have shared their admiration of the scholars’ propensity for leadership on campus, acknowledging that some had been elected to student government roles such as guild speaker or class representative, or had become captains of their sports teams. Seeing the respect they are gaining on campus is a welcome reminder of the importance of this scholarship in building self-esteem and developing their abilities beyond academic skill-building.
As part of the visits to Uganda, we enable as many of the scholars as possible to come together for CROSO scholar gatherings. These not only help us to meet the scholars and hear their stories, but it also creates a sense of community within the group, encouraging them to continue connecting and supporting one another throughout the year. Inviting the graduates to join these gatherings allows them to re-connect and reinforce necessary peer support systems as they seek employment and begin their professional lives.
Identifying opportunities for greater success
Each gathering opens dialogue for the scholars to share their frustrations and challenges. It often takes the scholars a few days to warm up to the idea that they can openly share some of the challenges that they have faced without offending us or appearing ungrateful. These conversations often lead to the most tangible changes to our programme.
During a 2013 visit, CROSO board members met with university personnel and better understood the reality of computer access on campus, as well as the importance of providing each scholar with a laptop of their own. This has enabled our scholars to complete their assignments on time, rather than depending on the availability of a classmate’s computer or the communal computer lab.
“The computer we got made it so easy for me this whole semester. It helped me access the internet from the university wireless internet and I used it to type my coursework and assignments.” Kiseka Samson
In addition to coursework, the scholars found the laptops helpful for their correspondence with their US liaisons. Most of our scholars now attend colleges or universities with wi-fi enabled campuses, which means their computers are an even more necessary resource. Teachers assign students research that requires the internet, and some scholars have found useful online training videos to increase their skills even further.
During our 2015 and 2016 visits, the scholars expressed their concerns about successfully navigating the job market after graduation. As is true in most developing countries, job offers in Uganda are typically driven by personal connections, rather than a formal recruitment process. The scholars lack access to these professional networks because their parents are not connected to these influential groups. After a lot of listening and brainstorming, CROSO has made a commitment to support larger internship expenses. Scholars can now request additional funding from CROSO for internship-related expenses (such as temporary housing, transportation, or supervisor fees) that enable them to gain better internship placements. This will provide them with the opportunity to build larger professional networks during their academic experience and to develop more practical job skills. Also, as more graduates of the programme find employment, the current and future scholars will find it easier to navigate the job market.
CROSO scholars and graduates are an inspiration to the younger children currently supported by CRO. Their success makes it possible for children who have recently left the street to dream of a life that includes higher education. We, and they, have come a long way in our ten year existence!
Molly MacCready is the Executive Director of CROSO