When I was in the third grade, my grandmother sat my uncle and me down to talk. She gracefully said, "My children, we are poor, but you two are destined to rise." These words have always meant a lot to me, and I often reminded myself of them.
My uncle and I were born the same year which makes us the same age. Growing up we did everything together. Our formative years were spent on the outskirts of Orangefarm in Johannesburg, South Africa. Poverty was not foreign to any of us because everyone in our community fell within a similar socio-economic bracket. My family was in constant movement between Rustenburg and Johannesburg in search of opportunity. Both places offered different opportunities, but when I transitioned from primary school (grades 1-7) into high school (grades 8-12), I received my first key out of poverty in Rustenburg through the Royal Bafokeng Merit Scholarships. This scholarship afforded me the opportunity to attend Bishops Diocesan College, a top boy’s school in Capetown.
In 2012, I began my high school career. This was a moment of reflection for me as my grandmother’s words played in the back of my mind. "We are poor, but you two are destined to rise." I immediately thought this was part of the blessing my grandmother bestowed upon me and my uncle. My focus and determination were stronger than ever. I took this opportunity with both hands and never dared to let go or lose sight of the privilege I had been granted. I had moved from a poorly managed and ill-equipped primary school to a top-rated school in South Africa. I learned how to speak English and broadened my horizon. The exposure helped me dream far beyond the circumstances I had grown to know.
Obakeng Augustin Leseyane, Founder of EdConnect
My high school journey was filled with accomplishments and failures. These experiences solidified my belief that the path I was on definitely had some twist and turns, but my success was waiting ahead.
During one of my school holidays, I was casually telling my mother about my experiences in school. She candidly asked, 'Obakeng, what you doing for others?' I responded that I was not in a position to do much, however, when I become rich I would do something. My mother took this moment to teach me a valuable lesson – she reminded me that I didn’t need to be wealthy to uplift anyone – all I needed was a willingness to act and the tools at my disposal.
After the break, I returned to school with the lingering question ‘What was I doing for others?’ I began reflecting on the moments in my life that have had the most significant impact. Atop this list was the opportunity to gain access to quality education, which gave me the chance to liberate myself from poverty. This was a pivotal moment in my life and continues to drive me toward success every day. Channeling this drive, I began exploring ways that would allow me to enable other young people across South Africa to gain access to educational opportunities.
In March of 2015, I founded EdConnect Scholars Program (ESP), a youth-run nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify, empower and connect students with scholarship opportunities and top-rated high schools in South Africa. EdConnect matches students to educational opportunities that best fit their profiles and backgrounds. Through our student ambassador program (high school and college students who volunteer and work with students in the EdConnect Scholars Program) we assist students with applying and processing scholarship and high school admittance applications. Student Ambassadors also serve as counselors and mentors to help students maintain good academic standing. During the summer months, student ambassadors participate in roadshows as we travel to schools in remote areas with limited access to the internet.
Currently, EdConnect is trying to lay a strong foundation to support a sustainable and prosperous initiative. We are applying to pitching competitions, incubators, and fellowships that encourage young entrepreneurs. We are finalists for Orange Corners’ year-long incubator program for 2018 and recently won the inaugural 2017 JM Busha Innovation Challenge for African entrepreneurs.
Through our experiences in working with students who are transitioning to high school and demonstrate academic excellence, leadership potential and financial need, we are gaining valuable insights and oversight to strengthen ESP's services and efficiency. We currently enroll 25 students annually and plan to scale our capacity to enroll 500 students into high schools by 2024. This goal will be realized through the support of scholarship foundations, high school and innovation hubs in South Africa and philanthropic support from the global community.
Ed Connect Scholars are on track to become our ancestors’ wildest dreams, if only we stay pressed to the mark to increase access to quality education. I believe that if we are faithful to our mission, EdConnect, along with its student ambassadors, scholars, and supporters will be instrumental in providing youth with access to quality education to both liberate them from poverty and build a socio-economically equitable and stable country.
My personal educational journey and reflections of my mother and grandmother’s wisdom preempted the founding of the EdConnect Initiative. Over the next 5-10 years, EdConnect Scholars will increasingly become leaders in the educational and economic transformation of families, communities and the entire South African landscape.