In 2001, at the age of 19, I left Belarus, my native country. I was fortunate enough to receive scholarships to study at some of the best universities in the world, at Harvard in the United States, and at Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, France. These studies opened many doors for me and led me to found in 2013 my own school, Wild Code School that teaches high-tech skills and which I have been managing ever since.
Due to my personal story, I belong to those who believe that education has the power of changing lives. I am convinced that the best way to help a person in difficulty is to give them access to relevant education at the right moment. Isn’t there a saying: "If you give a hungry man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime"?
By closely following the political and economic crisis that Belarus is going through today, I naturally wanted to help as I was helped, by giving access to quality education, that of Wild Code School, to Belarusians in difficulty, through a solidarity scholarship program.
At the end of September 2020 I launched our first call for applications for the recruitment of future Belarusian Wilders. We created 5 scholarships for them in our English-speaking group of future developers that started on October 12th.
Out of more than 200 applications received, we conducted about 50 interviews in two weeks and chose our first 5 Belarusian scholarship recipients. Besides meeting all our usual criteria for student selection, we prioritized candidates who suffered from repressions or lost their jobs due to the political situation in their country.
A solidarity fund for a long-term support
After the success of this first scholarships campaign for Belarusians and the positive feedback of the first recipients, we decided to expand the program and make it a long-term one. Wild Code School will launch a solidarity fund that will correspond to 5% of our revenu of the previous year. This fund will be used to support the most fragile and disadvantaged people through targeted recruitment campaigns.
The first campaign has already started. We called it "Support Belarusians". A permanent call for applications has been launched. It will stop when the political situation in Belarus changes.
In addition to the 5 scholarships already awarded in October 2020, we will offer 15 more by the end of 2020 in two front-end developer training evening classes starting on November 30th:
- 5 scholarships in an English-speaking class with other regular students from different countries.
- 10 scholarships in a Russian-speaking class created specifically for the occasion and that will include only Belarusians.
While the first group is part of the programs we usually run at Wild Code School and will be supervised by our employees, the second Russian-speaking group will be unique, as it will be led by a volunteer instructor and a campus manager. They are both Belarusians currently living outside of the country and willing, through this action, to make the change happen.
In 2021 we plan to offer even more scholarships to Belarusians who will be able to join our regular programs, in particular those that are distance learning and English-speaking. Other campaigns may be created later to help other categories of people.
Our first scholarship recipients
The stories of our first scholarship recipients reflect the realities of life in Belarus today. Yuri, Dzmitry, Yauheniya, Viktoriya and Valentin, 3 men and 2 women, live in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and Grodno, a regional capital.
Yuri, 36 years old, worked in a travel agency until a few months ago. Heavily hit by the Covid crisis, his company was already very fragile, customers were scarce and the Belarusian state did not recognize the existence of the epidemic and did not provide any help to the company itself or its employees. On the contrary, following the active political involvement and imprisonment of a family member of one of the company's founders in September, the company's bank accounts were frozen and its employees found themselves on the streets without income.
Dzmitry, 23, had just graduated from the Belarusian State Technical University in June 2020. After his studies, he joined a production workshop at the "Grodno Azot" factory as a worker, when protests broke out. His factory found itself at the epicenter of the strike movement calling for the release of political prisoners and the organization of new and fair presidential elections. Dzmitry spontaneously joined the strike and participated in it... for a few days until he was sanctioned with a dismissal and the obligation to reimburse the cost of his studies at the university where he had a scholarship.
Yauhenia, 29, is unemployed. After a few years of undergraduate studies in psychology and two long trips to Asia, notably to India because her grandmother transmitted her a passion for Indian cinema, she lives in Minsk thanks to small freelance jobs, having learned some coding basics. She regularly takes part in street demonstrations, but remains cautious: "I always leave before the official end of the demonstrations. That's how I haven't been arrested yet".
Viktoriya, 33, a computer graphics teacher at the Belarussian State University, was on maternity leave during the protests. To quell the revolt, teachers and students who disagree with the regime's ideology are being repressed and expelled. Viktoriya does not want to return to the university teaching career as long as loyalty to the regime takes precedence over scientific quality. She currently takes care of her 5-month-old daughter in parallel with her studies at Wild Code School.
Valentin, 34, worked as a video engineer at the main public channel of Belarusian television until mid-August. Suddenly, after Valentin’s refusal to cover the news in a misleading manner, he lost his job, as did several other fellow journalists. Blacklisted, like most opponents, he no longer has any chance of finding a job in his field in the country: all television channels in Belarus are state-owned.
“An opportunity to seize at all costs”
Starting a program at Wild Code School was a real adventure for our first 5 Belarusian Wilders. They discovered the school two weeks before the beginning of the session, trusted us, and did their best to succeed in the application process. In addition to the financial difficulties they may encounter - some have a family to feed, most have no income during the duration of the program - it is also a significant investment of time. For most of them, it is a real gamble for a better future.
Learning at Wild Code School is known for its intensity. A context of permanent political and social insecurity multiplies the magnitude of the challenge that such learning represents. But our Belarussian Wilders are determined!
The hardest thing at the moment is the English language. For most of them, this is their first experience of learning 100% in English. Obviously, at the end of the day "the head is heavy". The internet in Belarus can also fail at times. So the Belarusian students turn off their cameras during video conferences. Fortunately, all lessons are also recorded and can be reviewed if needed. And then the lack of sleep starts to show itself. "I don't dare ask you, do you ever sleep?" wonders one of the students who is impressed by the work done by his classmates.
They appreciate the program and work hard. In spite of the difficulties, it is an opportunity that they want to seize at all costs, "a magic" according to Yauheniya:
"I am delighted with this program!
First of all, I would like to mention the environment in which the learning takes place. At the beginning of each day, I really like the little standup, this ritual where we share what we did the day before and what we plan to do today. It motivates us a lot and allows us to realize what we have already learned. For me, it's very motivating and it encourages me to move forward!
Secondly, I appreciate that our instructor teaches us to think. Not to ask questions all the time, but to really look for ways to solve our problems on our own and not be afraid to make mistakes. He always reminds us that we can ask for help at any moment, but before asking for help we need to think. And don't be afraid to realize crazy ideas! I think it prepares us as much as possible for the real projects and real situations we will be facing soon.
Besides, I love our team! We're all so different, with different backgrounds and levels of knowledge. It's very interesting to listen to so many opinions and approaches to problems. It broadens my mind. And of course, participating in this course in English is a big plus for me!"
Training new talent who will build a better future
Coming originally from Belarus and founder of a school that teaches high-tech skills, I believe that change in Belarus will come through new technologies. The revolution is happening in the digital space, as the Belarusian population chose a peaceful approach. Belarusian cyber-partisans are already at work virtually attacking the regime. An alternative digital state is being constructed by the opposition in exile. Several platforms for social mutual help have already emerged. Information is shared on social networks that have become central in communication. It would even seem that an alternative monetary exchange system in crypto-money is under construction.
Digital skills are at the heart of this revolution. We at Wild Code School are happy to contribute to it by training new talent who will be able to build a new Belarus.
Yauheniya Habrykava, one of the first 5 Belarussian students of Wild Code School, at a demonstration in Minsk, Belarus, on August 23, 2020. Photo by Rustam Aliev