Educating Women for a Changing Planet

It’s no secret that educating women and girls is critical to sustainable development, economic growth, environmental stewardship, and a host of other factors key to humanity’s future. It’s less well-known that women’s education plays a critical role in mitigating climate change.

Project Drawdown, a broad coalition that researches climate change solutions, ranks girls’ education as the sixth-most-effective solution to global warming. Educated women have more agency, marry later, and more actively manage their reproductive health. They earn higher wages and contribute to economic growth.

The environmental benefits of educating women are clear: Educated women have fewer children; they can be more effective stewards of the environment; and they have greater resiliency in the face of extreme weather events.

But what if we could do more than increase female enrollment? What if we could create an educational experience that explicitly prepares women for careers on our changing planet?

I founded the Akilah Institute, an award-winning women’s college in Rwanda, in 2010 to create opportunities for women. Back then, we prepared women for careers in hospitality. The tourism and hospitality industry was one of the Rwanda’s fastest growing sectors, and our graduates landed coveted positions in human resources, customer service, business development, and more. We’ve since expanded to offer diplomas in technology, business, and entrepreneurship, which are aligned with high-growth areas of Rwanda’s economy.

Our model proves to be working. A recent alumnae evaluation found that nearly 90% of our graduates secured employment within six months of graduation. They earn incomes that average 12 times Rwanda’s national median income. And nearly 60% of our alumnae have received a promotion in position and/or salary since graduating.

The World Is Changing, So Should Education

But as I look to the future, I realize we have to evolve our model. The world is changing -- and quickly. Population growth, rapid urbanization, technological innovation, environmental degradation, and globalization present unprecedented challenges and opportunities. The challenges are compounded by climate change, which disproportionately affects developing countries. Many have weak institutions, limited infrastructure, and few technological resources, limiting their ability to adapt to global warming. Poverty, poor health care, and low levels of education also undermine climate resiliency.

While Africa contributes less than 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the continent is the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Those effects are wide-ranging and life-threatening. Africa’s climate is projected to become more variable, and extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, more frequent, according to a UN report. By 2020, between 75 and 250 million people on the continent are projected to face severe water shortages, and yields from rainfed crops could be halved in some countries. Even if international efforts keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, Africa could face climate change adaptation costs of $50 billion per year by 2050.

Climate change is transforming the global economy and the jobs that fuel it. However, current education systems are not preparing students for the careers of today and the future. This is especially true in sub-Saharan Africa, where most education systems were built for the previous era. As things stand, graduates from African universities will spend an average of five years searching for a job. Nearly half of East African employers in a 2014 survey cited a lack of skills as the major reason they did not fill vacancies. Millions of people are out of work or underemployed, but employers leave jobs unfilled because they can’t find qualified talent. The disconnect between graduates’ skills and employers’ needs will only get worse if education institutions maintain the status quo.

A New Model for the 21st Century

The world needs an innovative education model that prepares 21st-century professionals for the challenges and careers of the future. At Akilah, we’ve developed a radically different educational experience that gives students the knowledge and skills to adapt to a changing world. Our model combines education for sustainable development with 21st-century skills, personalized learning, innovation, and ethical leadership.   

UNESCO defines education for sustainable development (ESD) as the transformative learning process that allows students to acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values necessary to shape a sustainable future. Sustainable thinkers make decisions that balance vibrant economies with a healthy environment to create a future of abundance for all.

ESD is gaining prominence worldwide. The UN Sustainable Development Goals explicitly list ESD as an outcome target in Goal 4. In 2005, UNESCO announced a Decade for Sustainability Education. More recently, UNESCO launched its Global Action Program to scale up ESD. Prestigious universities, such as Princeton and Columbia, have also incorporated sustainability education into their academic offerings.

By intentionally crafting an academic experience rooted in sustainability, we are preparing our students to understand and address the effects of climate change. Sustainability themes will be embedded in Akilah’s courses and culture. Students will be required to complete a core curriculum in sustainability. They’ll apply their knowledge and skills to case studies and real-world projects that challenge them to weigh environmental, social, and economic considerations. Our model also emphasizes leadership, deep learning, creativity, and moral character to ensure that students can use their knowledge effectively once they graduate.

Just in the past year, Akilah students have developed sustainable business ideas and participated in inter-university competitions that use innovation to address climate change. Their business ideas include a company that converts waste to affordable energy and a hydroponic gardening system that can be adopted by local communities. We’ve had students participate in a UNDP design-a-thon, where they partnered with students across Rwanda to develop apps that convert soil and temperature data into actionable insights for farmers. Our new curriculum and model will encourage and increase student participation in climate-related challenges and projects.  

We’ve identified five pillars that will define our academic model and all of our diploma and degree programs. They include:

21st-Century Skills: We develop lifelong learners who are prepared for the jobs of today and can adapt and succeed in the careers of tomorrow. Our interdisciplinary approach combines subject matter expertise with collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.

Personalized Learning: We recognize that every student is different. Our adaptive learning model provides individualized pathways to success to ensure each learner achieves his or her academic goals.

Innovation: We encourage students to enthusiastically pursue new ideas, challenge the status quo, and develop solutions for unmet needs. We leverage the latest technology and learning methods to craft an unparalleled learning experience.  

Ethical Leadership: We educate and inspire ethical leaders who recognize the dignity and rights of others and the natural world. We foster values that promote gender equity, civic responsibility, and environmental stewardship.

Sustainability: We deliver a transformative learning experience that equips students with the knowledge and tools to balance vibrant economies with a healthy environment to create a future of abundance for all.

Increasing Access

We’re committed to ensuring that our program remains accessible to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Nearly 30% of our students are in the lowest socioeconomic strata in Rwanda, and 78% are first-generation college students. This fall, Akilah will have close to 1,000 students on campus and over 550 alumnae. We received over 5,000 applications for this year’s intake.

To meet increased demand and drive down our cost to serve without compromising the quality of our programs, we’ve adopted a blended learning model that leverages competency-based education (CBE). CBE measures mastery, rather than time spent in the classroom. With a CBE curriculum, students advance only after acquiring a predefined set of skills and knowledge. Students can progress through new material at their own pace, creating a personalized learning experience based on their strengths and weaknesses. Our CBE curriculum is delivered via a blended learning model that combines digital content with in-person group work, public speaking, and academic support.

Our Graduates

Our graduates gain the skills necessary for professional success in the 21st century and, at the same time, develop the mindset to build climate resilience. They lead critical conversations and push forward ideas that promote women’s empowerment, climate action, clean energy solutions, smart city innovation, and more. They drive change in their families, communities, and countries.

The workforce needs them. Human adaptation to climate change is projected to create 60 million new jobs worldwide by 2030. Those include 1 million jobs in off-grid solar lighting in sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, some 2.5 million African engineers and technicians will be needed to improve access to clean water and sanitation. This is just a small sampling of the career opportunities open to them.

Not all fields and industries contribute to planetary sustainability, but all of them can benefit from sustainability-minded employees. Our students learn to think critically, acquire new knowledge, solve problems, take initiative, and lead in the workplace -- skills necessary for success across a wide swath of industries.

The Future of Women’s Education  

Today girls’ and women’s education is increasingly seen as an economic and social priority. However, the quality and type of education matter. ESD offers a compelling answer. We’re excited to be at the forefront of sustainability education in sub-Saharan Africa. We’ve long prided ourselves on adopting innovative models that put our graduates ahead. With ESD, we’re preparing our graduates to understand and address the effects of climate change, while gaining the skills to succeed in the future economy.

To learn more about our model, please visit www.akilahinstitute.org, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.