In an effort to address the dire need for higher education for Catholic sisters in Africa, the African Sisters Education Collaborative (ASEC) launched the Higher Education for Sisters in Africa (HESA) in 2013. The HESA program uses innovative design to deliver higher education to Catholic sisters by engaging American and African university partnerships in order to offer a hybrid online and onsite degree program for sisters in Africa. HESA is funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and is tailored to address the educational needs of individual Catholic sisters and to support them as they matriculate to a degree program. It uses a cohort system to engage sisters in academic rigor and to support them as they acclimate to their academic environment; especially, since many have been out of school for a long time (http://www.asecsldi. org/programs/hesa/). Acquiring the higher education credentials will not only build sisters’ confidence and managerial and leadership competencies, but also will enable them to properly address the needs of their society and to amicably adapt to the changing global community. HESA is informed and shaped by research on educational and gender gaps in Africa, as well as by the dire need for Catholic sisters to upgrade their credentials in higher education. HESA uses emerging technology innovation to deliver quality higher education for the sisters via online distance learning and onsite at African universities. Sisters are each provided with a laptop and a wireless modem to access the Internet. Three-week training is provided to the sisters by faculty from the US University to prepare them for online learning. It has been incredible to see the sisters’ persistence, engagement, desire to learn and commitment to succeed. I have met most of the sisters; they are so grateful that their long held dream to acquire a degree is becoming a reality, and that they will be better and informed stewards. They have beaten all odds to acquire an education. Most of them had not used computers before; they now navigate online learning platform and conduct research easily and communicate with faculty via Google Hangouts, Skype and Moodle chat.
“I am delighted, I never thought I would make it, it only required me to try and here I am, almost completing my degree programs,” Sr. Adeodata from Uganda, commented.
An inaugural cohort of 18 sisters from Kenya and Uganda enrolled at Marywood University in 2013; they each successfully completed twenty-one credits, and all 18 are continuing with their academic program at the Catholic University of East Africa, Kenya. A second cohort of 15 sisters is enrolled at Marywood in January 2014 and 5 transition to CUEA after one-year online. A third cohort of 23 sisters enrolled in January 2015.
The first cohort of 18 sisters from Nigeria and Ghana will began online classes at Chestnut Hill College in fall, 2014. Partnerships between African and American universities indicate the strong commitment to—and necessity of— the development of sisters’ competencies in order to prepare a well-trained workforce for the Catholic Church in Africa. More sisters are enrolled onsite at African universities in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Ghana. It is my hope that HESA will continue to grow to educate more sisters in variety fields. Currently sisters are enrolled in teacher education, theology, business administration, and nursing.
In Africa, Catholic sisters are at the forefront of addressing modern Africa’s challenges, and are strategically placed to be key players and problem solvers in Africa. Sisters engage in programs that alleviate the plight of their people by providing human, social, and pastoral services at schools, hospitals and dispensaries, dental clinics, rural outreach programs and healthcare facilities, and in programs for HIV/AIDS patients, unwed mothers, youth, street children, and orphans, to name just a few. Yet, because of society’s great need, the majority of sisters are put to task without proper training and skills, lacking the essential competencies and degrees that are prerequisites for effective management. With the high cost of living and of education, and with sisters working in low-paying or non-paying jobs in parishes, it becomes difficult for their communities to invest in sisters’ education. As a result, sisters lack the tools needed for rendering effective services. The Catholic schools and healthcare and social welfare programs now heavily staffed by the sisters in Africa can only survive the challenge of a changing global landscape if these sisters are provided with relevant skills through upgrading and ensuring that they are well educated to handle emerging needs.
In Africa, educational trends show variations between the countries, but each suffers from similar educational problems: higher net and gross enrollment rates in primary education as a result of participating in the Education for All (EFA) movement; lower educational achievement levels for girls; a dire shortage of teachers, especially at the primary levels of education; low quality of education; high demand; limited spaces; crowded classrooms; and a mismatch between economic need and educational offerings at the higher education level. In the 2012 United Nations report Economic Report on Africa: Unleashing Africa’s Potential as a Pole of Global Growth, human capital formation is listed as an area where Africa is lagging, which indicates the need for a fresh approach to bridge education and employment. Additionally, the report stated that technology transfer and innovation are key drivers of productivity, growth, and development in a knowledge economy, and that both have a profound impact on individuals, firms, and governments. HESA utilizes technology innovation to increase educational access for women religious, who are potential leaders of development for the underprivileged. Currently, there are 116 sisters from Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia who are enrolled for degree programs at six colleges and universities in Africa and two in the USA through HESA. I am inspired by all of the colleges and universities that form ASEC: these women religious founding members of ASEC had a vision and insights – although they have educated sisters in their colleges and universities over the years, through HESA we are able to meet the needs of sisters through a flexible program depending on the circumstances of sisters and their national context.
I am delighted by the support of the Catholic Sisters Initiative at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation for living out the legacy of Mr. Hilton – to support Catholic Sisters and their ministries.