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The MIT graduate who is building Africa’s first STEM school

Comments (0) Africa, Education, Featured

Obinna Ukwuani was given a great advantage in life, when his parents moved from Nigeria to the USA, and thus gave him access to an excellent education. Ukwuani made the most of his opportunities, and recently graduated from Boston’s prestigious MIT. However, rather than take a comfortable job in the US, he is looking to create a STEM school in Nigeria that will offer others the chances that he had.

From STEM school to STEM school

Obinna Ukwuani grew up in Washington D.C., where his parents had moved in order to give their son access to as good an education as they could find. Although the family lived in the USA, his parents were determined that a young Obinna would not lose touch with his heritage, and as such they sent him back to Nigeria for his 8th and 9th grade years of school. A successful education and a passion for technology saw Ukwuani gain a place at the prestigious MIT in Boston.

However, his previous visits to Nigeria were not something he wished to forget, so he returned there during his freshman year at college. It was on this trip that Ukwuani saw how little opportunity within STEM fields there was for most Nigerian students.

Recalling his trip, he said, “It was shocking to see how far behind me they were…I knew I wanted to improve things in Nigeria.”

Ukwuani took immediate action, and in 2012 he launched a robotics summer school in Lagos, Nigeria that ran for 3 years. The school taught 113 students from 17 Nigerian states, how to code and construct robots, over the course of 5 weeks in the summer. The school hired MIT students to provide guidance and had funding from Shell. Ukwuani saw an immediate impact on the students who attended, explaining, “In 3 days, kids who’d never seen a computer were writing code.”

Makers Academy

The success of his summer school inspired Ukwuani to move into STEM education fulltime, once he graduated. While it would have been easy to take a well-paid job in the U.S, Ukwuani is clearly passionate about creating change within his parents’ homeland. After creating a business plan, the MIT graduate spent 5 months finding investors who would back his dream of creating a fulltime STEM school in Nigeria. His search was successful, and with backing in place, he is now in the process of creating his school, Makers Academy, in Ubuja, Nigeria.

Ukwuani expects the school to open in 2018 or 2019, and it will play host to 600 students who have shown an aptitude and interest in STEM fields. While some schools in Nigeria teach these subjects, no school will contain the cutting edge technology, such as 3D printers, that Makers Academy will have.

As a recession hits Nigeria, Ukwuani feels that changing education could be a long-term benefit for the whole country, saying, “Now more than ever we need more options…and we don’t have them.”

It may well be that Makers Academy is the start to ensuring that those options, are something that Nigeria’s future generations will not have.

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Iqbal Al Assaad: Palestinian prodigy, doctor

Comments (0) Education, Featured, Middle East

As a high school graduate at age 12 and a medical school graduate at 20, Palestinian Iqbal Al Assaad is in every sense a prodigy despite many challenges. But her childhood dream to become a doctor and help Palestinian refugees is only partly realized. With limited opportunities for professional work in Lebanon, where she grew up, El Assaad instead practices medicine in Ohio – for now. El Assaad graduated from high school four years ahead of schedule at the top of her class including studies in biochemistry and mathematics she would need for medical school. At age 13, she caught the attention of the education minister of Lebanon, who helped her win a scholarship to study medicine in Qatar. In 2013, still only 20 years old, she became the youngest student ever to graduate from Cornell University medical school’s Qatar branch and possibly the youngest Arab doctor ever.

Opportunities for Palestinians limited

But since then, she has been unable to use her skills to help Palestinian refugees and offer them services by opening a free clinic for them in Lebanon. Medicine is one of several dozen professions from which Palestinian refugees are barred. Palestinians in Lebanon were allowed to take clerical and lower-level jobs starting in 2005 and allowed to work in some professions in 2010. But highly skilled fields including medicine are regulated by professional associations that impose strict membership restrictions in order to protect jobs for Lebanese nationals. These associations are concerned that Palestinians might overwhelm the labor market, “so they feel it’s about job opportunities for Lebanese nationals”, said Lina Hamdan, a spokeswoman for the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee.

Refugee population swells with Syrian conflict

As the ranks of refugees grow in the Middle East, Al Assaad’s situation is increasingly common. The United Nations Relief Works Agency, estimates there are about 450,000 Palestinians in Lebanon and more than 90,000 have arrived from Syria since that country’s conflict began five years ago. While the UN agency provides primary medical care, it does not pay for more serious medical conditions, often forcing refugees to chose between forgoing treatment or going heavily into debt to pay for care. Growing up in Bar Elias, a rural village in the Bekaa valley, after her parents arrived in Lebanon, Al Assaad visited relatives in refugee camps and was struck at an early age by the poverty and lack of access to medical care.

Inspired to help refugees

Inspired to help, she pursued an education in math and science, which led to help from Lebanon’s education minister Khaled Qabbani in winning a full scholarship from the Qatar Foundation to attend Weill Cornell Medical College. Recognizing her accomplishment in graduating medical school and obtaining a prestigious residency in the United States, Arabian Business named her one of the 100 most powerful people under 40 in the Middle East in 2015.

Inspired to help refugees

Inspired to help, she pursued an education in maths and science, which led to help from Lebanon’s education minister Khaled Qabbani in winning a full scholarship from the Qatar Foundation to attend Weill Cornell Medical College. Recognizing her accomplishment in graduating medical school and obtaining a prestigious residency in the United States, Arabian Business named her one of the 100 most powerful people under 40 in the Middle East in 2015.

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