By Emina Kobiljar
As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world, many have compared this crisis to a war. While it would not be right to draw a direct equivalence between the current outbreak and the unimaginable horrors of war, there are parallels to be noted. Like a war, it has taken countless lives, and like a war, it has disrupted our economy and educational system completely.
Stay-at-home orders and school closings have meant that kids have been displaced from their schools and made to isolate at home, leading to logistical as well as psychological disruptions. Educational institutions have had to reimagine their teaching styles and curriculum to adjust to new constraints. They have tried to ensure that all kids have the tools necessary to access online resources. Experiences from war-affected countries have shown that when kids’ schooling is interrupted for long periods of time, their outcomes suffer sharply. Around the world, only 50% of school-aged refugee children are enrolled in school, and only 1% go on to enroll in college, compared to 26% of students globally.
Education in times of uncertainty provides stability for children in otherwise disorienting and trying times. I know from personal experience. I was five years old when the Bosnian War broke out and my family fled to Germany. None of us spoke a word of German and we were complete outsiders. Our asylum wasn’t permanent, so we lived in constant fear of being sent back to our war-torn country. It wasn’t until I enrolled in the local public school system that I finally felt there was a path to acceptance and growth. I applied myself in my studies and excelled. It was through school that I felt a part of a larger community and gained the self-confidence and perspective I was so desperately looking for.
In 1998, my family resettled to Houston, Texas under an initiative for Bosnian refugees and school once again became an outlet. Like many of the charter school kids I work with today, I grew up in a tough neighborhood with little means. My parents weren’t well versed in the language or the educational system, so I had to navigate the educational landscape on my own and take advantage of the limited resources available to me. Luckily, I had key mentors and organizations along the way who guided me towards special schools, scholarships, and opportunities that would put me on a transformative educational trajectory. This path ultimately led me to graduate from both Harvard and Princeton, and to embark on a career in financial services.
Today, I serve as a Senior Vice President in the Education Finance Team for BB&T Capital Markets, heading up the Houston office. My job allows me to channel my passion for education into helping charter schools that empower mostly low-income and disadvantaged youth to fulfill their potential. I also serve on the BB&T Central Texas Multicultural Banking Committee, where I help channel the bank’s resources towards schools in need of financial education and learning. Finally, I am able to return to the same community where I grew up, serving as a board member of its development organization and working with the schools in the community to share my story and make an impact through BB&T.
What have I learned from my journey that we can apply to our current challenges? We need to help children excel in unconventional settings by focusing on education. In our current circumstances, this means finding creative solutions that optimize both in-person and online learning. This is the time to rethink and improvise, and also a time to explore and accelerate innovative ideas. BB&T recently announced a literacy app that helps kids learn to read from their mobile devices. We have to show the value of education as a means to upward mobility and security in an ever-changing and dynamic world. I’ve learned that your whole life can be turned upside down in an instant, but the value of education is constant.