It is incredibly impressive when creative, proactive minds come together during tough times such as this pandemic and come up with a project that will serve thousands to say the least. That is what happened with Nourhan Shaaban and Rana El Kahwagy during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Nourhan and Rana’s friendship blossomed eight years ago, when they were students at Harvard. Rana was pursuing her masters and PhD at Harvard Law School, and Nourhan was a student at Harvard College, studying behavioral economics. Both were from Alexandria, both received full scholarships, and both cared about similar issues including education, equity, and mental health. They managed to help many students over the years, sharing their experience in studying abroad. Still, they wished there was a way to put all their resources on one platform. They were also frustrated that resources tend to be available for the well-connected, and that many brilliant students did not even know that they can get into top schools with generous scholarships.
Fast forward to a few months ago. Rana is an Assistant Professor of International Law at Alexandria University, and Nourhan is completing her Master’s in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Their professional lives evidently busy. Then the COVID-19 pandemic started, and things slowed down significantly. They decided then with a friend of theirs to build a platform where Arab students can access resources.
Bridges is their effort to gather what they learned through their experience, and to welcome others to do the same. They even named it Bridges because they are committed to bridge the gap and serve all students regardless of their resources. Rana and Nourhan hope to pay it forward through their platform.
What were the main obstacles you faced when you first started? How did you get past them?
It was actually a very smooth process. We approached many people starting with our friends who were eager to share their stories and insights. We were amazed by how generous people can be with their time and knowledge, especially that this is an intensely personal journey, and not everyone is as comfortable about sharing.
So far, we reached 7000 students. However, one thing we are still figuring out is how to reach more students, especially the right kind of students who may not be able to afford an application fee.
Many times, people apply for courses, especially online, but then lose interest and never follow up. Do you face this on your platform or is it any different?
We do not offer courses. We offer short blog posts, inspiring stories, application timelines, and a forum for questions.
Some will say that focusing on academics is more accessible to the privileged, as it requires funds that may not always be available for everyone. How can this change and what is your platform doing to change it?
Absolutely, and privilege is not only about funds. People who study abroad tend to have connections, know the process, have resources and support they can rely on, and even have others in their circles who studied abroad.
Language fluency beyond Arabic is crucial if you want to study abroad. However, we felt that if we only publish in English, this would limit students who are still working on their language fluency. Additionally, we wanted the resources to be accessible to teachers, parents and mentors and that is why we created an Arabic version of our platform. We also purposefully try to feature people who received full scholarships.
we wanted the resources to be accessible to teachers, parents and mentors and that is why we created an Arabic version of our platform
What is the ultimate goal you hope to accomplish with this project?
Even though we are a platform to help students access admission resources, our ultimate goal is not to push students to study abroad. Instead, we want students to feel empowered enough and to navigate their different options. Some of our users may actually decide that studying abroad is not for them, and that is fine too. If they decide to apply, we aspire to make the process as easy as possible, and to make them aware of different sources for financial aid.
Some of our users may actually decide that studying abroad is not for them, and that is fine too
One review we received accurately captures our ultimate goal. “This is a great platform that fills a huge gap in our society. We need more people willing to share and willing to include other less informed people … It could be a game-changer for a lot of students and young people!”
What are your future plans?
So far, we created +50 blog posts, attracted 7,000 students, and collaborated with 30 volunteers. We hope to reach more students across the Arab World and to create and translate more content to cover different fields and programs.
We hope to reach more students across the Arab World and to create and translate more content to cover different fields and programs
We would love to invite any Arab who studied abroad to volunteer with us, share their personal stories, and any resources they learned throughout their journey.