The students and staff during Preparation Camp
The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed the way education is delivered, and this has also been the case at Ashinaga Uganda. In October, Ashinaga Uganda launched the Study Camp, the first leg of the Ashinaga Africa Initiative’s Preparation Year. What used to be an in-person camp held at the Ashinaga Kokorojuku, this year completely moved to the cloud. 16 students from 16 different Anglo- and Lusophone countries, as well as Ashinaga staff working from Japan, Europe, Brazil, and various African countries, met daily on Zoom. The Camp was scheduled to start at the beginning of July in Nansana, Uganda, but to limit the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 7th Cohort of AAI Candidates attended all the classes online.
For the last seven years, this six-month intensive program has been an opportunity for students to strengthen their ability to perform well at standardized tests such as IELTS or SAT, to work on their university applications, and to develop leadership skills. On top of this formal development, there are several extracurricular activities and events aimed at fostering Candidates’ pan-African identity and develop their kokorozashi. This would be a challenging aspect to recreate online Zoom calls. However, we place Scholars’ safety over every other thing. The risk of infection in our facility in Nansana, together with the restrictions of air travel across the world, let us adapt our safety measures and deliver a brand-new curriculum online.
Among the challenges that Ashinaga faces by running the Study Camp remotely is the reliance on fast internet and stable electricity, which are not broadly available to the 16 students enrolled in the camp. The World Bank estimates that less than a third of the African population has access to broadband. Even Ashinaga’s facilities in Uganda struggle to maintain stable and reliable access to the internet. To overcome this issue, we surveyed all students and estimated the cost of providing the hardware and internet connection required to attend the camp. Then we delivered over 500 USD to each student to purchase a laptop, a mobile router, and data bundles. While some students are able to charge their laptops from home, others need to rely on their neighbours or schools to recharge their equipment. Students demonstrated leadership and a spirit of initiative in overcoming these issues. Mustapha, from Sierra Leone, decided to relocate to the capital, Freetown, to attend the camp. He says, “The only challenge I face is my movement. I completely abandoned my village to join the remote camp and access faster internet services in Freetown.” Debora from Zambia also identified the instability of her internet connection as the biggest challenge she was facing.
A significant alteration to this year’s Study Camp has to do with how we deliver classes. This year we were not able to have interns, who previously came to Nansana from across the world to tutor students on standardized exams and offer university application guidance. The intercultural exchange between students and interns was another component that enriched the camps and provided a diverse learning experience. In order to maintain the quality of learning, Ashinaga Uganda partnered with Berkeley House for IELTS preparation and The Profs for SAT lessons. These professional tutors are training the students to familiarize themselves with the content of the exams and strengthen their scores gradually. Reflecting on the Camp so far, a student from Zimbabwe, Bheki, says shared that “Though it’s a little bit stressful and overwhelming, l have been trying to keep up with the pace and manage my time wisely. I’m really enjoying my IELTS classes and am grateful to the Ashinaga team for arranging different activities to complement the work on the personal statements and research project.”
Due to the limited capacities of an online Study Camp, the focus has shifted to support student’s university applications which involve strengthening students’ academic aspirations and plans for the future. On top of this, there are a series of classes that are run to develop their academic preparation. This includes learning about citations, referencing, and plagiarism, as well as learning about Ashinaga’s values, philosophy and leadership. Plans are currently underway to run a Preparation Camp in person, in which we hope to focus on the preparation of students to live and study abroad. After three weeks of Study Camp, the feedback has been positive: Bohang from Lesotho says, “If I were to say one word to explain these three weeks of the remote study camp, I would say no word other than, “FANTASTIC”. The camp is run superbly well; I am totally satisfied with the support that the staff members give to us during this camp.”
The Study Camp ran until mid-December. We will continue to monitor the risks and limitations related to COVID-19. Ashinaga hopes students and staff will be able to run the second part of the Preparation Year safely in person, starting from April 2021. The students will carry on with their academic and professional training, then during the summer, they will apply for visas for their universities abroad. If everything goes according to plan, Scholars will travel to Japan, the UK, the USA later next year.