Neesha Rahim co-founded Level Up Village with a conviction that applying global collaboration and STEAM learning to real-life problems will transform the world of education and not only equip young people for the jobs of the future, but also empower them to make a difference. Level Up Village is a recognized leader in global education and currently operates programs in more than 100 schools in the U.S., Australia, and the U.K. with more than 30 global partner organizations in the developing world. Neesha, who is also a member of the UN’s NGO Committee on Education, heads up the effort to scale effective global partnerships, develop relationships with international schools, form strategic partnerships, and align content to create cross-curricular, globally impactful and sustainable programs at Level Up Village.
What inspired you to co-found Level Up Village?
Growing up, my mother’s mantra was, "Everything can be taken from you except your education." This advice stemmed from her experience as an immigrant. My mother fled to the U.S. from Kenya with a suitcase and $7 in hand having lost everything she and her family owned in the uprising that had taken root. She had been accepted into pharmacy school in Atlanta and landed up in her dean’s office with her suitcase, $7, and her incredible will to get an education. She got a job as a technician at night, put herself through school, and slowly brought her family to the U.S.
So it’s no real surprise when I look back that I went into the education space; I grew up with a passion for learning and an understanding that education brings opportunity. That dedication to education became my North Star, as well.
After earning an MSW in Social Work & International Affairs, I had the honor of working with youth development, education, and peace and conflict resolution organizations all over the world. I was inspired by this experience to find ways to educate people and connect them to one another to promote greater global understanding and even bring about world peace.
When I become a mother, I began to think deeply about how to ensure my own children were curious, motivated, and joyful learners. STEM presented this fabulous, hands on, fun way to engage them. I also wanted them to grow up with a sense of perspective about the larger world we live in. By the time I had children, my world had opened up via my work with people all over the world. I was convinced that in order to be successful in the professional world of the future, they would need a global perspective.
Due to my background in youth development with non-profit organizations, I was inspired to make an impact on hard to reach populations around the world and give children educational opportunities in a sustainable way. I was also very committed to philanthropy and saw it work very well when a symbiotic relationship was created between the donor and the recipient.
I met Amy McCooe, my co-founder at Level Up Village (LUV), through the elementary school our kids attended. We were both volunteering to bring innovative, fun after-school programs into the school. Our passion, professional and personal backgrounds complemented each other well. We connected on the basis of our shared drive to bring children and educators hands-on opportunities that would instill a love of learning, STEM, and global connection and collaboration. Indeed, the first LUV course was launched as an after-school course at our own school and our kids and their friends’ children were our first students.
By conducting focus groups, we saw very clearly that STEAM was the perfect conduit for inspiring engagement and curiosity in students. We understood clearly that the jobs of the future, both here in the U.S. as well as abroad, require STEM skills. And the pay gap between men and women is narrower in STEM as compared to other fields.
The after-school space presented the perfect petri-dish for educators to try new things with very little risk attached. Additionally, via our "take a class, give a class" model, we were able to provide these innovative, high-tech education opportunities to students around the world who would never be able to afford the opportunity on their own. Also, through our model, which provides not only real-life, hands-on educational opportunities for kids but a support system and excellent teacher training for educators, we saw a way to spur a ripple effect throughout communities in the U.S. and abroad.
Ultimately, we feel strongly that this kind of education will prepare our kids for the jobs of the future and spur the education revolution forward—not only in the U.S., but around the world.
What are the effects you hope participating in Level Up Village has on students?
It’s clear that the need is bigger than ever to come together and collaborate on goals that are universal to us all.
Children these days, whether in the U.S. or abroad, are committed to making an impact on the world. Thank goodness! We’re leaving them with a host of problems to solve. Indeed, this is the "do-something generation." We hope that through our programs, children learn how to innovate, work together, and ultimately make an impact.
For our students around the world, who have very limited access to varied learning opportunities and little understanding of various career opportunities, we hope to instill confidence in them that they can hold their own with peers from different economic levels, by building in them a greater awareness of career paths and real skills they can use to break the cycle of poverty.
What are the biggest challenges that arise while trying to foster international collaboration?
We are constantly working to level the playing field between our low-income students around the world and our students in the U.S. We try to provide the scaffolding necessary so that children who have come from low-income, communities with difficult circumstances have the skills they need to collaborate with kids in the western world who likely learned to navigate a touch screen before learning to tie their shoes.
To that end, we’re committed to continuously creating varied, targeted courses that keep students on both sides engaged, motivated, and inspired.
Where do you see Level Up Village in 10 years?
I expect that Level Up Village will be revolutionizing education both in the U.S. and abroad in the next decade. We’ll be in all 50 states and working with ministries of education abroad. Level Up Village will be the go-to for educators who want to bring global collaboration into their classrooms.
Image: Courtesy Neesha Rahim