The Digital Skills Training (DST) program equips Syrian and Lebanese young adults (ages 16-35) from underserved communities with transferable digital skills promoting social, educational, and economic inclusion and preparing them for the growing online demand. The University Preparatory Program (UPP) supervises the curriculum delivery with the help of qualified local instructors.
In 2016, AUB signed an agreement with the World Food Programme (WFP) to teach underserved Lebanese and Syrian refugees information technology (IT) and basic English language for IT skills. From a small pilot of 100 participants in 2016—taught in Reynolds Hall at AUB in Beirut with the support of the World Food Programme—DST has expanded to four training centers across Lebanon: in Tripoli, Sidon, Aley, and Mekseh. Upon the commencement of the project, WFP recognized the importance of English language training in equipping students with digital as well as life skills that can help them find better opportunities in the job market.
As the project progressed, students voiced their opinions on how the number of English classes offered is not enough. Taking into consideration the background of the students, and understanding how they are not familiar with the English language, WFP provided UPP with more funding to increase the number of English instruction hours.
Most DST students are hardworking women, housewives, and mothers who have fled war-torn zones in Syria. Students benefiting from WFP and UPP's program look forward to coming to class, as they feel empowered through education. Many mothers shared that they feel they can connect more with their children, and even be more involved with their education and help them with their homework and assignments. Most students in this program have witnessed atrocities and trauma in their lives, but their perseverance and determination to receive an education overrides any obstacles or challenges that come their way. The English teachers at the centers who are recruited and intensively trained by UPP also play an important role in empowering students and boosting their confidence levels.
Since 2016 UPP has benefited more than 2000 students. To be precise, by April 2019, we will have reached over 2200 young adults with basic and advanced digital skills training, linking graduates with opportunities for further education/training, internships, and work, as appropriate.
The curriculum has developed a great deal and remains a work in progress. Towards the end of each cycle, UPP receives a huge number of reports and feedback from the teachers on how the curriculum can be advanced and improved. Teamwork is key in this project, and the sense of community achieved between the different parties involved is something to be proud of. The program has expanded beyond AUB's classrooms in 2016, to reach Bekaa in 2017, and Aley, Saida, and Tripoli in 2018. Since Lebanon is culturally rich, every community has its own characteristics and needs. What makes this program so successful is that the curriculum is designed in a culturally aware and specific manner. In other words, the material used in class by local teachers is tailored to maximize the student learning outcomes. Teachers are aware of the students' situations and adhere to values of respect and compassion. UPP is very selective when it comes to recruiting teachers and ensures that students get the best experience out of this opportunity.
When students come to any of the centers, they take the pretest, which determines their entry level based on their current English language skills. Students are then divided into three sections: beginner, upper beginner, advanced. Based on experience, UPP has designed customized material for each of those levels to yield optimal educational outcomes. UPP is not only providing students with language skills, but also with character building skills, as the teachers are adamant at providing quality education while taking into consideration the students' daily lives, which include a lot of responsibilities and pressure.
Fortunately, students perceive UPP's project as a safe space and consider their colleagues and teachers their support group. Upon interviewing students, some expressed how they formed friendships in class and felt that they were part of a loving and nurturing community. Moreover, many students, especially housewives, expressed joy at the chance to get out of their homes and interact with the outside world. They feel empowered and proud to be learning material associated with AUB. One of the students said that she feels extremely proud when she holds the file with “UPP" and “AUB" engraved on the cover.
Alaa Kosaji, a student in the Aley center, expressed how her life changed when she started the DST:
“I was something of no value, meaningless like any house item. Once I came out of the house, I found another world. I found that I had missed on a lot of education. I took it very seriously. I was committed to my schedule and my attendance. I organized my time. When my kids arrive home, I feed them, then I have a time slot to study…Now you have this dream and get attached to this atmosphere. Now you have a dream to get to the next level and continue. Now you have put us at the beginning of the road. Now you cannot go back. I have even named you 'love of life' because you made me love life and you have re-instilled hope in me. Life does not stop here."