St Andrews Education for Palestinian Students (STEPS) is a local charity that provides financial support to two Palestinian students annually, enabling them to pursue one year of postgradate courses at St Andrews. The University has generously agreed to meet the tuition fees for these two students, but STEPS still must raise and additional £10,000 per student to cover travel, accommodation and living expenses.
This May STEPS trustees will choose the 2015-16 scholars from a pool of successful applicants to the University. According to Ellen Collingsworth, the secretary of STEPS (and also a trustee of the charity): “The trustees come from various backgrounds but share a commitment to make a positive contribution to Palestinian society.”
The charity addresses an important issue among Palestinian students. In occupied territories, postgraduate education is either underdeveloped or unavailable. “Because of restrictions of movement in the military controlled areas, it is difficult to get to classes on a regular basis. It can take as many as 10 years for students to achieve undergraduate degrees in these conditions,” Ellen says.
However, once chosen STEPS scholars still face a number of challenges in getting their degree. Ellen says that one student found it hard to get used to not carrying ID papers around in case authorities stopped him, which is a constant worry in occupied Palestine. Students also face other cultural changes that require some adjustment, such as the lack of sunlight during the winter months and the costs of participating in the student coffee culture.
After graduating, these scholars continue to face more adversity than most. Palestine has a high unemployment rate and currently lacks many opportunities for work. But Ellen says: “The qualification and experiences [the STEPS scholars] receive while at St Andrews should not just be seen in the light of getting immediate employment but adding to the skill base that will in time benefit the wider Palestinian community through the expertise gained by contact in the wider academic world.”
The first STEPS scholar graduated from St Andrews in 2013, and a second followed the next year. Thanks to local contributions and other fundraising efforts, the charity had enough revenue to support two students in the 2014-15 academic year and selected two scholars. However, their chance at a St Andrews education was destroyed by the recent escalation of violence in Palestine. Due to the bombardment of Gaza, the confiscation of farmland and a court-ordered home demolition, the two chosen scholars each decided to stay and care for their families, one in Gaza and the other in Jerusalem.
In a letter rejecting of the scholarship, one of the students (whose anonymity the charity has protected) writes: ‘I believe that the smile when I first got my acceptance letter [to the STEPS programme] was enough, and it literally changed my life. You gave me something better than education, which is hope.’
STEPS will soon choose their next two scholars and looks forward to welcoming them to St Andrews. To learn more about the charity, check out their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/stepspalestine.