On a recent visit to the West Bank, I met with presidents, professors, and students from eight local universities to talk about the challenges Palestinian youth face. As those familiar with this region are aware, the circumstances are extremely difficult: security and logistical barriers, a stalled peace process, an ever-deteriorating economy with not enough jobs, and a young workforce largely unprepared for positions that do exist. Youth unemployment hovers just above 40 percent, and even more discouraging is that half of those young people who can’t find work hold university degrees.
Yet what always amazes me when I’m there is the remarkable resilience and stubborn sense of hope that so many young Palestinians share. Speaking with our university partners, I felt that same spirit of optimism. While acknowledging the barriers to employment facing their graduates, these educators told me that programs promoting life skills, entrepreneurship, and career guidance are, in fact, changing the odds and making a difference in the lives of their students.
I’m pleased that we at the International Youth Foundation have been part of that effort over the last five years. Working through the USAID-funded Youth Entrepreneurship Development (YED) initiative, we have partnered with more than 600 local organizations and helped train career counselors and staff to deliver comprehensive employability services, including life skills, internships, and entrepreneurship training. After receiving such a range of services, young people are more prepared and competitive for open positions and, when it’s fitting, better equipped to create their own opportunities through self-employment. More than 16,000 Palestinian youth, many of whom are university graduates, have benefited from such trainings, with many more in the pipeline.
It was heartening for me to hear that faculty members value these courses for the way they better equip their students to face the challenges ahead and feel empowered. They told me their students are taking different approaches when it comes to thinking about their careers, and they see greater choices in their futures. Said one senior official from Palestine Polytechnic University, “We’ve seen how grades improve and fields of study change for students; graduates get jobs or start enterprises.”
The story of 25-year-old Sara is a case in point. A business major at the Arab American University of Jenin (AAUJ), she enrolled in the YED-supported Path to Career program offered through the Palestine Information and Communications Technology Incubator. There, she developed critical life skills, including effective communications, time management, and goal setting. With this competitive edge, she was offered a three-month paid internship as an administrative assistant, which then led to a series of related positions. Today, three years after taking her first career steps, Sara has secured her dream job, working at AAUJ to help new students with career advice, class registration, and choosing a major.
As our experience in Palestine illustrates, these skills-based programs help young people better understand themselves, choose jobs that relate to their skills sets and interests, and gain training in relevant areas. Seeing these results, some educators are beginning to mainstream the programs.
“These are not just some interesting interventions that we add to the academic courses,” the leader of Bethlehem University told me. “For us, these are an integral part of the curriculum.” Several universities now require freshman to enroll in our Passport to Success® life skills course, and an increasing number of students participate in Build Your Business, our entrepreneurship training program, before graduating.
I’m particularly pleased that more than 200 staff from participating universities have been trained to deliver these life changing classes. It means these programs are sustainable and the institutions are in it for the long haul. The result? More Palestinian young people will be prepared to lead productive lives, support themselves, and build their communities, along with their own futures.
As 22-year-old Akram from An-Najah National University put it: “A lot of Palestinian youth like me are achieving a lot despite our situations, yet we can achieve more… we just need a chance.” Let’s work together to give these young men and women that chance.