Head, NGO Relations | Kiron Open Higher Education | Berlin
This interview is part of an ongoing partnership between Women in Foreign Policy and The Women in Diplomacy Podcast, ran by Kelsey Suemnicht, focused on women working at the intersections of foreign policy and technology.
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To kick it off can you tell us a bit about Kiron?
Kiron is a social start-up based in Berlin providing access to higher education worldwide for refugees. We're doing a digital tool which supports students on their way to higher education. We started this project about 18 months ago, and we're now rolling it out to different countries in Europe as well as in Jordan and in Turkey.
What is your role at Kiron?
I'm leading the public affairs department, working with NGOs. I figure out how we can cooperate to supplement the program we're offering to our students with additional opportunities. For example, we're cooperating with local NGOs that are supporting study rooms, where students can meet and study together.
On an international level, we're cooperating with NGOs, for example, for projects in Jordan or Turkey. We are in touch with governmental organisations such as UNHCR.
Less than one percent of refugees globally have access to higher education. We felt that Kiron's unique approach, coupling online and offline learning with community-building, was a really strong example of the power of technology in foreign policy. What changes do you feel tech and digital have already achieved in the field?
Tech offers the opportunity to build a strong network of different stakeholders at an international level. In our case, it makes it easier to communicate with our students and access information. Everyone is at the same time informed about what happens on another policy level. Distributing information and accessing it really quickly helps. We can move forward quickly when there's a challenge out there which needs to be addressed right away. This is the main advantage that tech gives us.
Refugees are in a country which isn't theirs, speaking a language which isn't necessarily theirs either. What are the key challenges that Kiron is addressing?
Our students are mainly facing four challenges when they're trying to access high education.
- The first challenge is documentation. For a lot of our students, it means a high barrier when they're trying to access higher education as they don't have all documents that are necessary with them. When someone leaves their country because there's a war, in many cases they don't bring, for example, their high school certificates with them. That's just not the first thing you think of when you're running away from war. Our students need, when they're trying to access German universities, a high school diploma or something equivalent. Another document that needs to be provided is something regarding their legal status. From the point when a person enters the country until their legal status is fixed, it sometimes takes two years. Our students are in a sort of limbo in many cases, and are not really able to act and to move freely. They can't act and work, learn, study, access courses in the way that they would like to.
- The second challenge is language. When students are trying to access universities here, they need to have at least a C2 or C1 level of German, which takes at least one or two years to achieve, as German is not a very easy language.
- The third challenge is cost. The journey that our students make is expensive: leaving their home, coming here, means a lot of them end up with very limited resources. Even if studying is not very expensive in Germany, they need funds to live one. This means they need to be very flexible in the approach when they're trying to study.
- The fourth challenge is the size of universities. College capacity is a bit rigid. Universities cannot open up quickly for many new people arriving here in Europe at the moment. This limits the seats for newcomers who are trying to approach the system.
These four challenges are a huge barrier for newcomers entering the country who are arriving with high aspirations and high potential. After settling in here, a lot of them told us,
"I don't want to just sit here. I don't want to have a work that is under my level of abilities. I really want to pursue higher education. I want to get where I want to be and I want to continue my life as I plan to. But I see no chance to access higher education."
We came up with our solution to provide digital access, and then to transfer our students to higher education institutions such as the traditional universities that we're working very closely with.
How do you overcome the language barrier?
Our courses are all in English, and most of them provide subtitles in different languages such as Arabic, Farsi and German, because our student community comes from various backgrounds. About 60% of our students come from Syria. We also have a huge student community coming from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea... Their background is really diverse. We provide access to German lessons online and offline because we know that after the one or two years when our students are studying online, they will need to provide English certificates. We are not skipping the tests that students need to go through when they're accessing high-education, we're just providing them with more time and additional support on the way to get there in terms of preparatory courses and in terms of language courses.
Tell us about your own path and how you ended up being involved with Kiron.
My joining Kiron was the result of a series of coincidences. I'm a trained psychologist, so I don't come from a background of international relations. I specialised in intercultural psychology and intercultural training. I realized that working in an international context is really key for me. I wanted to work with education and making sure students worldwide could access it and have access to equal opportunities because I think that's what education comes to. It enables people to access a different world.
Combining my approach to education and knowledge with my psychology background, I tapped into Kiron almost two years ago now. I started in the organisation when it was still very small. There were five of us. I ended up doing a bit of everything. I ended up in this field because I realised that my background in intercultural training and intercultural psychology provided additional knowledge to the field of education and being especially in touch with international organisations in this field.
That's the case for many Kiron team members. We're coming from different backgrounds such as psychology, communication or business. We end up training ourselves because we really love what we're doing. We realise that even though our backgrounds are very diverse, we're all working together with this one goal. Within Kiron, we are learning a lot and going deeper and deeper into different directions. That's how I ended up in this field of working with international partners.
What is your career advice for a young woman who would like to do something similar to what you do?
Expose yourself to what you want to do. For me, it was working in an international context during my studies. Afterwards I was always working in international or intercultural settings such as South Africa or South America. Being exposed to different settings, different international contexts helped me understand different organisations, their approaches, the way they work, their communication structure. Being in this context was the best school. The school of life is always the one that I can recommend most.
My other recommendation would be to give a try to what you love. If you see an organisation, and you really believe they're doing a great job, just tap into it. Start new ways of working on goals together with young people with aspirations who are leading to the same goal as yours. Have an eye open for what you want to do, and expose yourself.
One of the major themes we see in tech and foreign policy is the clash of innovation and of innovation versus bureaucracy. Do you have advice for anyone who might experience that in their own jobs?
We're experiencing bureaucracy a lot when working with external partners: universities, governmental bodies, etc. These organisations are huge and there are bureaucratic barriers in working with them. We're experiencing that a lot ourselves. What I can recommend here is to really find the individuals in these organisations that want to work in a different way, because they exist everywhere. Identify them and find creative ways around bureaucratic barriers. Our experiencing is that when partners realise how we work, they adapt these systems to their organisations.
For example, we're working with an internal communication tool. We've been introducing it to bigger organisations who are now working with it as well. These tools can make a big change. My other recommendation is to try to not be bureaucratic in your own organisation. At Kiron, for example, we're using an organisational model called holacracy, which enables us to reduce bureaucratic processes within our organisation.
This means we're working in smaller teams with decision-making procedures that are really clear and spread around. We are split in small circles working very closely together, with clearly defined roles and processes. That enables us to stay very flexible, to be creative, even if we're now growing quickly. We have found ways around bureaucracy that are more fun. Of course, we are experiencing bureaucratic issues ourselves, but we're really reducing it by being unconventional every now and then. Also be courageous to be unconventional, and use the organisational system that works with yourselves.
How can we keep in touch with what the start-up does, and also with what yourself are up to?
The easiest way to stay in touch with Kiron is following us on social media. We're very transparent in what we're doing. Whatever we do, whatever event, we go to whomever we're talking with, we try to post it as quick as we can on Facebook or Twitter. It's actually quite easy to really follow what we're doing on a day-to-day basis. This means also that we're very open to meeting peoples and all our events. We're creating events, we're also attending events. We're always happy to meet people there. We're trying to announce that beforehand, and we're happy to also receive comments via social media.
If you're interested in my work, and the work of Kiron, or in my way of getting from psychology and a very different background, just get in touch. Email me, and I'm happy to meet you here in our headquarter in Berlin.