South Africa hosts over 273,000 refugees and asylum seekers, of whom 84% come from sub-Saharan Africa, including Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. GEM has partnered with the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town since 2018, giving urban refugees and asylum-seekers in Cape Town the opportunity to access higher education. Their vision is to foster the cultural, social and economic integration of migrants, refugees and South Africans into local society.

South Africa suffers from recurring violence and xenophobic attacks directed against foreign nationals. GEM students in Cape Town face many barriers in their pursuit of university degrees and often have to balance families and other responsibilities on top of their studies. The competency-based degree provides the flexibility to manage the complexity of their urban lives.


The GEM and Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town partnership aims to address the challenges faced by refugee students, which include:

Xenophobia and violence

Financial insecurity


Legal status (Securing documents is time consuming and inefficient)

Technological literacy skills

Access to childcare

Long commutes/access to transport


Average 4-year graduation rate for GEM students in South Africa

Average 4-year graduation rate for South African universities

Average 4-year graduation rate for US public universities

Average 4-year graduation rate for US private universities

Average global MOOC completion rate


2020 total students enrolled


Female to male gender ratio


Average age


Languages spoken
(other than English)

With children
Working while studying
1st generation student

GEM’s average cost per student per year


South Africa’s average cost per student per year


US public in-state average cost per student per year


US public out-of-state average cost per student per year


US private average cost per student per year


COVID-19 reflection

Cesar, GEM Student from the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town

The COVID 19 pandemic came as a bombshell to everybody worldwide, because it affected everybody in one way or another through the economic, social and negative mental impact that it had.

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    As we all know, the pandemic caused the economy to shut down. Talking about my personal experience, it was not a delightful experience at all. It came out of nowhere and everything was locked down in no time. This affected everyone, including me and my family. The effect of this unfortunate period can be categorized into three categories: personal economy, social experience and studies.

    The impact of the pandemic negatively affected our economy. This is due to the economic total shutdown that happened worldwide. We live off of our daily breadwinning. We live in a foreign country and most of the time it’s hard to get formal employment. In this case, one needs to work hard to put the bread at the table. So, one can imagine something that came without warning and suddenly shut down everything was a shock and it was hard to cope with.

    Seeing people around you panicking and buying to stock up their homes also brought back memories of war. People were buying supplies when the crisis was rising in my home country, because it was ordered through the national radio that nobody was supposed to leave their house.

    The social experience was caused by us, like everybody else, staying at home. Being at home at all times with the whole family between closed doors for such a long time is a new experience. The routine has changed. Children became exhausted as they were never used to this kind of life. Parents were stressed, because they didn’t know how they were going to feed their families during the lockdown.

    It wasn’t a very relaxed mood at home staying with the family not knowing if you’re going to be able to provide for them in a few days to come. Furthermore, children are used to routine – waking up at a certain time, going to school, daily school activities, coming back from school, having meals at home and so on. Having these routines disrupted wasn’t easy, especially for those with special needs, like our firstborn.

    Reflecting on our studies, I’d say that it wasn’t affected too negatively. We’re familiar with working remotely, since our program is an online study program where every student progresses at their own pace. Besides, some academic coaches are assigned to help the students. This never stopped during this pandemic period. In addition, the center assisted with internet data to help students to be able to work at home. The Uplearn program worked harder to provide support to students by adjusting their program to fit the online environment.

    At the beginning of every month, students have to identify a goal that they work towards and one of the program facilitators will go over it with them. This never stopped. Instead, it was done via video calls it and motivated students to keep progressing.

    In conclusion, the pandemic period shocked people globally, however, I’d say that for us GEM students it didn’t get to a critical level as most of us are trained to adjust to problems emotionally regardless of the cause. Our program not only covers the academic material, but also trains students to become problem solvers. This helped us get through this challenging period.

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