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SocietyRedefining education amidst conflict, as young minds seek knowledge against all odds

Redefining education amidst conflict, as young minds seek knowledge against all odds

A University journey through trials and triumph

For many young Ethiopians seeking to further their education, more stands between them and acceptance into university than just exam scores.

Tarik Abebe (name changed) and Melat Mengesha know this all too well.

Tarik, a passionate 26-year-old, had nurtured a captivating dream of pursuing journalism after doing well in her high school exams, which took place four years ago in Addis Ababa. The exhilarating anticipation that preceded the announcement of university placements had reached its zenith.

Every passing week had added to the mounting suspense. However, when that long-awaited moment eventually arrived, and Tarik discovered that she had been granted admission to Wollega University—located in western Oromia—her family was taken aback. The sheer shock etched on her father’s face, she recalls, was undeniably profound, leaving an indelible mark on her memory.

As one of Ethiopia’s newer institutions in a region marred by conflict, safety concerns were real. The region has been a conflict hotspot since 2018. Located a mere 332 kilometers from the capital, the university is among the third generation universities in the country. Other universities in conflict-affected areas like Tigray and Amhara have also been a cause of concern among families unsure about sending their children so far from home.

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But Tarik was undeterred. For her, attending Wollega University only fueled her determination. “I saw it as an opportunity, not an obstacle,” she says.

“My father refused to let me go. It took a lot of convincing and pleading before he finally let go,” she said

Braving family fears, she headed west to experience life beyond the capital.

At first she says the distance from home and the unfamiliar language was a challenge in itself. ”Nevertheless, as time passed, I started to feel at ease amidst the freshman year chaos.”

Melat, 22, had hoped to pursue software engineering after her own stellar exam performance two years ago. But learning she’d been assigned to Gondar University shattered those plans. With families often reluctant to let children study far away, she too faced pressure to remain close to home.

When she learned where she was placed, her family resisted the idea of sending her so far away. “My family wasn’t comfortable with me studying at any university outside of Addis Ababa, so I ended up studying accounting at a private university in the city instead,” Melat said.

While pursuing her accounting degree at a private university in Addis Ababa, Melat has become more interested in digital marketing. “I’ve educated myself on digital marketing and already create promotional content for real estate companies,” she said enthused.

Melat says the quality of education in private institutions is below standard while they focus on the profits only.

“I’m even considering dropping out of accounting classes because I find the educational quality to be quite poor,” she said. “The university only focuses on increasing tuition fees without improving education quality.”

An increasing number of students today prefer to avoid attending universities located in conflict areas. “A significant number of students, after completing high school, prefer seeking scholarships to study abroad in order to avoid regional campuses,” said Desalegn Birega, a lecturer at a private university in Addis Ababa.

Families also push their children to enroll in private universities within Addis Ababa rather than sending them to regional schools. “This concern is especially prevalent for families with female students versus male students,” Desalegn noted.

Redefining education amidst conflict, as young minds seek knowledge against all odds | The Reporter | #1 Latest Ethiopian News Today

Concerns over campus safety are valid in some cases, though social media also spreads misinformation that discourages attendance, according to Desalegn. Regardless of views or politics, he believes universities must remain outside of politics.

“Local communities are responsible for ensuring campus environments remain free of any distractions from the learning process,” Desalegn said.

When one region welcomes students of other ethnic backgrounds, and treats them well, others follow suit. “Ultimately we are one country that must rebuild trust between regions,” Desalegn explained.

Tarik reflects fondly on his early days at Wollega University.

“The first few months felt like a dream come true – making new friends, exploring new places, and experiencing new things daily,” she says. “Contrary to expectations, I found the environment to be a positive experience.”

“The local food, like ‘Anchote’ and ‘Chombo’, became my favorites. Warm and caring residents made me feel at home. Security was top-notch. The town exuded a warm, welcoming vibe,” Tarik notes.

However, that did not last long.

Ethnic conflict soon disrupted the peace across universities nationwide. “A lockdown was imposed as turmoil engulfed campuses. It was a nightmare, but some of us escaped safely home,” Tarik says.

In 2020, as security deteriorated, COVID-19 surfaced, further delaying Tarik’s studies. “Through it all, I completed four semesters in one year to start my third as a journalism student in 2021,” she said proudly.

Tarik notes Wollega faced no unique challenges. “Insecurity impacts all regions. But perceptions before and after goingthere are vastly different. Locals here, like everywhere, seek only peace and progress,” she explains.

Communications blackouts also exacerbate family concerns. Tarik says the number of students out of school due to conflict is a loss for the country. She emphasized the need to ensure a lasting peace nationwide to prevent lost opportunities.

In 2022, Tarik’s graduation arrived but for one more obstacle – a new exit exam policy.

“It was a distressing news. The new policy dictated if we would graduate or not. We studied hard and took the test in 2023. Sadly, about 60 percent of students failed nationwide. I was fortunate to pass,” Tarik says, relieved.

For many Ethiopian students, overcoming family worries about safety and distances from home presents an obstacle to accessing higher education opportunities across the country. However, after navigating through what some deem to be insurmountable, Tarik graduated from Wollega University.

“The entire journey provided unforgettable experiences. I find myself missing it all,” she said.


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