When I was still a little boy, my parents used to tell me that I could be whatever I wanted to be in life. I believed it because I knew my parents were always right. What I did not know was the reality of the environment in which I was born — an environment that would challenge my dreams and my reality. My parents were born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and fled to Tanzania as refugees during the civil war of 1996. I was born and raised in refugee camps — a child of no nation, identity, or nationality.
In that environment, it felt like the world was always against us. Fear was a norm, school was sporadic, and that meant that my future was a blur of inconsistencies and fragmented possibilities. Living in the camps, we had to innovate and build solutions quickly with whatever was available. Bicycles were crafted from trees and broken tires. Despite these circumstances, I still grew up with dreams of making an impact on the world. This is a dream that many kids in the world are familiar with, but only a few truly get to live. Some dreams are not realized because of fear, lack of courage, lack of opportunity, bad advice, and more. The catalyst for hope, the drive that kept my dream alive, was the knowledge that I would have to leave the camp to make my dream my reality.
In 2010, my family emigrated to America and was able to leave the impermanence and frustrations of the refugee camps behind. Dreams were realized, and new hopes were built along with the desire to make a new permanent familial home in an unfamiliar land. The trappings of the camps were behind us, and I was able to engage a world I had only imagined. I really wanted to go to school — a real, American school — and start learning how I could solve all the inquiries I had imagined for so many years.
In the refugee camps we used to see movies with American students using computers in school, wearing lab coats, and doing all these experiments and creating innovations. Little did I know, I had been misled by Hollywood’s depiction of American life; the reality was far from what I had imagined. I did not know any English, and other than my older brother; I was the only other Swahili-speaking student in the school. Due to my amazing ELL teacher, I was able to learn English very quickly due to her dedication to building meaningful relationships, which in turn allowed me to excel in a very welcoming learning environment. This teacher truly set the bar for me; and after one year of school, I was proficient enough to speak English and ready to start acquiring the skills needed to innovate. However, the American classrooms were not the stuff of Hollywood storytelling. I imagined schools that catered to my curiosity, taught me how to think critically, embraced creativity, and we're truly open to innovation. There was no difference from learning in the refugee camp. Students still sat in nicely arranged rows in the back while the teacher was in front of the class teaching most of the same materials that we were learning in Africa. School started to feel like the camp I just survived: I felt stuck again.
I wasn’t the only one. My friends started to slowly fall away. Some dropped out due to personal struggles, some were amazing artists whose passions went unseen, and others simply and unfortunately felt that school wasn’t a place that could help them advance their lives.
When students feel helpless — or without a voice — it’s easy to blame the teachers. I did.
The problem, however, is not with the teachers, but rather in the education system itself that prevents the kind of interactions and relationships that I craved as a student, and that students and teachers around the world still desperately need. In order to end this seemingly endless cycle perpetuated by the existing structure — I worked with teachers and students to develop a new way to create the communication structures to end the cycle of disconnection.
I am building Enlight because I believe that the two most important people in a school building are teachers and students.
When meaningful connections are made between these two individuals, magic happens. Think back for a second about your journey through education, who were the teachers that made an impact on you? These teachers go above and beyond their job description and become mentors and lifelong coaches as they ignite the student’s desire to learn, by building inclusive and purpose-driven classrooms. This platform will empower teachers to continue doing what 85% of them go in the field to do in the first place, which is impacting the lives of their students, mentoring them to become the best versions of themselves, and simply becoming lifelong sources of inspiration. We aim to close the gap between teacher and student’s unmet need to be engaged.
Enlight is bigger than me. I am not alone in this fight, as more than 380+ teachers have joined our mission. We are currently building a community of educational institutions, networks, school leaders, and entrepreneurial students. As Enlight gears up for the fall semester, we are continuing to build our community based on the following tenets:
- Relationships are as important as academic learning
- Inclusion is a pivotal part of building a safe learning environment
- Empathy is the most important catalyst in teacher and student success
The wonderful news is that 74% of teachers are actually dedicating more time to build and teach relationship-building in their classrooms, and we hope to welcome them with open arms at Enlight because only 22% of educators; actually, feel prepared to take this task on. During our alpha test, we had 20 educators becoming experts on more than 350 students.
If I had a magic wand and unlimited money, there would be no problems in the world but as Mrs. MacKay, my 9th grade Pre-Algebra teacher told me,
“It’s about the hard, meticulous work that you put into a problem that you should be proud of, the answer is just a bonus.”
In the modern education situation, the answers are coming from teachers and students the world over. Enlight is working with these voices to build a platform that enables teachers to create transformational learning environments and ensure success beyond the classroom from students who come from all walks of life.
Throughout the journey of the creation of Enlight, I have consistently seen the unselfishness of educators, and desire of teachers and students to cooperatively engage in a new kind of classroom dynamic. This is the kind of information that should be shaping the future of modern education. There is too much emphasis on the wrong kind of data in education. The problem doesn’t require machine learning, AI or algorithms to solve. The kind of learning everyone wants happens when teachers have engaging classrooms and students feel heard. Engagement is an active process that modern statistics and test scores do not address. Engagement relies on the teacher, student relationship. Enlight is a relationship accelerator, a place where teachers and students are interacting about the things that they care about. Changing the classroom based on this kind of holistic paradigm alters not only students and teachers, but the way students interact with their communities and the world. We must be vigilant and work towards this better world — a world that prepares an enlightened society focused on problem-solving, teamwork, leadership, critical thinking, as we celebrate everyone’s uniqueness. Our student population is only 20%, but we are 100% of the population of the future.