Education for All

Chris Aredo had a normal childhood growing up in Kenya. That is, until he became orphaned at the age of 12 and found himself living on the streets of Nairobi, scavenging and stealing to survive. He lived this way for six years, then enrolled in the National Youth Service, a boot camp providing basic vocational skills. Shortly thereafter he met Paul Maina, who was starting up the Children and Youth Empowerment Centre.

Aredo joined Maina at the centre when it opened in late 2006. There, he had an opportunity not only to help shape better lives for young people but also improve his own life by enrolling in high school, which he quickly completed. With help from the centre’s support network, he then enrolled in university, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business information technology.

Aredo is now a mentor, facilitator, and community leader with a youth leadership development program sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).


Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences

This is a story that Mark Brennan, Penn State’s UNESCO Chair in Rural Community, Leadership, and Youth Development, likes to tell to illustrate the importance of education. "If given the opportunity for learning and education, people will seize the moment," he says. "Through a small investment and his hard work, Chris’s life and those of others were transformed. In less than ten years, Chris went from being a homeless street youth to a high school graduate to a college graduate to a leader, activist, and agent of change."

According to Brennan, who also is a professor of rural community and leadership development, there are more than a billion youth like Chris out there. "Just think of the impacts of reaching a fraction of them—or better yet, think of empowering all of them," he says. "This focus on ‘Education for All’ will be a cornerstone of our work. Much of that work will be with older teens and college-age youth, who are major movers of social change, innovation, and development."

The UNESCO Chair in Rural Community, Leadership, and Youth Development—established in July 2013 within the college—is the only UNESCO Chair program housed in a college of agriculture and one of only three at a land-grant university. The selection process is highly competitive—only nineteen UNESCO Chairs have been awarded to U.S. institutions. Penn State was selected because of its record of scholarly excellence as well as its land-grant mission. "The college’s ability to conduct top-quality research and teaching, and convey these into applied extension and outreach programs and policy, sets us apart from other institutions," Brennan says.

Brennan was chosen as UNESCO Chair for his more than twenty years of experience in international community development, local capacity building, and civic engagement. His contributions to professional journals also were recognized within UNESCO, and over the last several years he has worked with other UNESCO Chairs and institutes on a variety of projects that were integrated into major UNESCO initiatives.

In addition to Brennan, more than 120 faculty members, university-wide, will be affiliated with the UNESCO Chair program. Their activities will include sharing teaching materials and best practices, conducting evidence-based research, initiating student-faculty exchanges, creating outreach programming, and contributing to an online global graduate degree program in youth and community leadership. Under the umbrella of youth and community development, specialized projects will entail working with other Penn State units, such as the College of Health and Human Development, the College of Medicine, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the College of Education. Faculty affiliates fall into four general themes for community-based work: Civil Society and Democracy, Health and Nutrition, Social and Economic Innovation, and Natural Resources and Sustainability.

Penn State is also part of the Global Network of UNESCO Chairs on Children, Youth, and Communities, which brings together more than 400 of the world’s best multidisciplinary academics and researchers. UNESCO Chairs from Penn State, the National University of Ireland, and the University of Ulster will oversee the network, which spans six continents, ten geographic regions, seventy-five universities, and twenty-five nongovernmental organizations. Says Brennan, "It’s a complete game-changer for us and how we do our work. This network will allow us to respond to research and program needs within weeks, as opposed to years, which is now the case."

According to Brennan, the UNESCO Chair projects will be driven by UNESCO’s priorities and needs. As priorities change, whether they are community-based solutions for dealing with malaria in Africa or ways to get young people to adopt healthy lifestyles, Penn State faculty members will focus on those topics in terms of both research and program delivery. Building partnerships among countries is one priority.

"We will go anywhere we are invited to build partnerships," Brennan says. "Right now we are doing leadership trainings in Kenya and Zambia, training facilitators and youth from local communities. Once a strong connection is built between these two countries and they start sharing best practices between them, we can step out. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel—we want people to maximize the resources they already have."

Education_Children.jpgDominic Chavez/World Bank

Creating Educational Opportunities

Brennan and his colleagues have laid the groundwork for launching a global education network through Penn State World Campus, including plans to develop online courses that will be offered as MOOCs (massive open online courses). "These courses will be available for the developing world, community builders, and youth educators," he says. "We will expand them to include certificate programs and degree programs. We’ll be reaching diverse audiences, people who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to take online classes."

For Brennan, the UNESCO Chair program is all about action. "It gives us a framework for changing things on the ground," he says. "This is not about academic exercises. It is not about wishful thinking, theoretical ramblings, and charitable intentions. It’s not about filling our library with books and reports that are rarely, if ever, read. It’s about achieving education for all. The UNESCO program strives to guarantee the single most important, undeniable human right: the right to knowledge and learning. Education is power and sets the stage for strong communities that take care of their own needs."

Brennan offers an example of education as power. Research shows, he says, that if a girl’s education is increased by just a couple of years, the likelihood of her becoming a mother at a young age decreases dramatically. Moreover, the odds of infant mortality are cut in half. "Getting an education for everybody, especially disenfranchised groups—kids, refugees, women, the elderly—can be transformational."

Brennan cites the world’s current "youth bulge" as a driving factor for education and youth development programs. A third of the world’s population is under the age of 15, and half the world’s population is under age 25.

"Our world has massive numbers of young people," he says, "and the vast, vast majority of them are in the underdeveloped world. In many places you have this youth bulge running alongside either conflict or disease, so it’s not uncommon for, say, a 10-year-old Kenyan girl to be head of a household. And the odds of her getting a formal education are small. These kids are a heck of a lot more mature than your average 10-year-old. They are doing adults’ work."

Building Strong Communities

Just as education has the power to transform lives, strong communities lead to stable, just, and civil societies, Brennan says. "For all citizens, but especially young people, the impacts of community are real, tangible, and measurable. We’ve studied this process across the world, and it’s true everywhere. The conditions and context might be different, but one thing holds true: tremendous things happen when folks care about the people and the place where they live. Through the UNESCO Chair program we’ll be helping communities figure out what they want to do and how to use their resources to make things happen."

The Children and Youth Empowerment Centre in Kenya that helped the orphan Chris Aredo serves as an example of the power of community as well as of education. Penn State has a long-term, ongoing partnership with the centre, which was initially designed to provide shelter and education for orphans living on the street and now has close to 200 youth involved. "The cool thing is that now a lot of the kids are aging out, but this is their family," Brennan says. "So they are actually doing community-building activities and youth-leadership programming, helping the young adults develop small businesses and other activities to contribute to their place. They’re essentially creating their own village. People can stay and live there as active, contributing members of this little society. It’s awesome."

Brennan offers one more concrete example of what he means: "I do a lot of work in Cambodia and Vietnam, and everyone there has a motorbike. There’s a sea of them. One of our colleagues in Thailand has done research on the effects of young girls having access to scooters. There’s evidence that when a girl has a scooter, she’s less likely to give birth to her first child at a young age, her literacy and health improve, a whole bunch of things. Just that mobility gets them into the community and allows them more opportunities—they can go to the next town for a job or for school, they can see the world beyond their village. A lot of these are easy fixes—this isn’t splitting the atom. Even if you chip away at a small piece, the impact is amazing."

Other UNESCO Chair projects in the works include youth leadership research and programming in Africa and the Middle East; research on best practices for getting youth engaged in their communities in Europe, Africa, and Asia; community-based health promotion and food security in the developing world; and sustainable resource management in South America.

For more information about the UNESCO Chair in Rural Community, Leadership, and Youth Development, visit

By Krista Weidner