The city of Antwerp, Belgium, with its half a million citizens, has a migrant population of over 40%, representing 179 nationalities. There are many differences between the living circumstances of these citizens, including chances for education, etc., in comparison to native, or indigenous, Antwerp citizens. Though this disparity is reflected across all ages, I will focus on young people. The high school dropout rate is a very relevant number to showcase here. 30% of migrant boys and 25% of migrant girls drop out of high school without obtaining a degree, compared to 13% and 7% respectively for their indigenous counterparts.
I chose to highlight this particular statistic because I truly believe that education is “the way out.” The way out I am referring to involves the concept of social mobility for the many migrants who live in less-than-desirable circumstances, in less-than-desirable areas. I grew up in one of these such places, and from a very early age I wanted a different life for myself than the one my parents and neighbours were living. It is a fact that education plays a huge role in social mobility, and it was clear to me that education was my way out.
With this in mind I decided to choose a different high school than the one most of the children of my neighbourhood attended, one that was known to fully prepare you for higher education and one that had very few students of a migrant background. I chose for the latter option and it turned out to be a great decision, even though it was not easy going to a school in a completely different environment than the one I was used to. After finishing high school I continued on into higher education. At first, the small number of students with a migrant background at university perplexed me. It bothered me a lot in fact, and prompted me to volunteer in a couple of projects that were devoted to helping youngsters in high school transition to university through tutoring and mentoring.
Through this volunteering I learned a lot about what the city of Antwerp is doing to prevent early school leaving (dropping out), but also what the city is doing about the inevitable fact that some people will ultimately leave high school without obtaining a degree. The city of Antwerp has three Youth Competence Centres (YCCs), which are based in three neighbourhoods that have been identified as problem areas. What makes them different from any other youth centre is that while they are first a place for youngsters to come and spend their free time, the skills and competences they develop there will be recorded. For example, they may gain skills and competences through the processes of organising events for the whole neighbourhood, while being observed by workers of the YCCs. All competences are then compiled on a personal USB device called the C-stick (competence stick), and this gives young people that do not have a formal degree the ability to approach potential employers, ready to showcase skills they have gained through informal learning.
An issue that a lot of youngsters in these neighbourhoods face is that they have few or no networks through which they can find a job in the first place; however there are workers at the YCCs who are there to help them through the process and to make sure that the local employment agencies recognise the c-stick. The centre also recently organised their first job fair, which was different in that it was organised by the young people themselves, and brought together employers, training facilities and other young people.
A vital element to the work of the YCCs is the creation of an environment of trust, which is one of the most critical elements necessary to foment any change. It took several years for the YCCs to become “credible” in the eyes of the local youngsters, but they did manage to gain that trust and responsibility through years of working on the street and building relationships with youngsters in the spaces where they were comfortable. These young people now believe that the YCC is “their” place, where they can find endless possibilities of things to do. While they spend their free time working on projects that they have created, they are furthermore in control of the skills they are gaining that will in turn help them to find a job, even if they have not finished high school. Recognising skills that young people gain through informal education is essential. We have to tap into the informal knowledge of young people because by writing those off who do not complete compulsory education we lose on huge potential. Therefore for me education goes beyond formal schooling and we should look at it from a wider perspective.
A lot of young people that grow up in my neighbourhood, or in similar neighbourhoods anywhere in the world, believe they will never have a chance to realise their dreams. I used to believe that too. It is up to us, the people that did get the chances and opportunities, to return the favour by helping those youngsters believe that they can do the things they dream of, and to realize that there is “a way out.” It might require them to double their efforts and to understand that they might face a lot of adversity along the way, but with the right guidance, mentoring and much-needed trust, they will get to where they want to be.