A lmost every evening, Alaa Totonji sits down over a medium-sized dinner table in Rabat, Morocco. She lives right next to a French restaurant, Le P’Tit Resto, where chanson music can be heard on Friday and Saturday evenings. Totonji has always adored French tunes. She sits down, types on her computer, reads every single word out loud and taps her feet to musical beats. Totonji is a Syrian refugee.

I got in touch with her after I heard about University of the People (UOPeople). It was a typical Saturday afternoon. I was watching a YouTube video when an ad popped up. I usually click the SKIP button right away but this one captured my attention. It was an ad from one famous Vlogger about a tuition-free university, operating online and being accredited in the United States (US). I got interested. I wanted to learn more about it and I pitched an idea to my editor. She said yes. I could get started.

Totonji comes from a poor family. They would always migrate from one place to another, looking for a better life. After changing many places of living, she settled in Rabat. “This place is magical. The culture is like mine and people are just close to my heart,” she said to me on a Skype interview. Totonji lives in a two bedroom apartment and hears French music on Fridays and Saturdays. She used to work at that restaurant full-time but decided to change her working schedule because life unfolded an exciting chance for her — she became a student.

Once Totonji came to Morocco, she knew her life would be completely changed. She always wanted to help communities around her and she knew it could be achieved through education. “I came across this university that was having classes online. I confess, I was like — WHAT?! My English was not that good at that time, so I asked my landlord to help translate some sentences for me. Both of us were convinced that this was an OPPORTUNITY. So, I applied,” she said.

Admissions process turned out to be scary but not as tough as Totonji imagined it to be. She almost lost all her hopes when the university portal asked her for the proof that she definitely graduated from a high school. “I left everything in Aleppo. I had only one small bag where I put some essentials. No diploma or something of this sort,” Totonji said. This wasn’t a big deal. She was asked to participate in the Ability to Benefit program. This is a computer-based test that determines if a student has an ability to study at the US Postsecondary Education level. Long story short, passing this test equals having a high school diploma. “There are three sections: Sentence Skills, Reading Comprehension and Arithmetic. It’s not hard at all, especially when you really studied at a high school,” said Totonji and smiled in the camera.

The diploma — ticked. Another document Totonji had to submit was an English Proficiency test. She didn’t have such document. However, this wasn’t a barrier for her either. Totonji was offered to enroll in a free intensive English language course before getting admitted to the university. “The founder of this platform, President Shai Reshef, read United Nations’ report stating that by 2025, there will be over 100 million students who cannot afford universities. He wished he could make education a human right, not a privilege. I feel that a few intensive months of preparation let me catch up to my peers from developing and developed countries,” she said.

After nine months of intensive preparation and strong determination, Totonji got into the university. For now, the online institution offers four major programs — Business Administration, Computer Science, Health Sciences and Education. President Reshef wants to add some more majors to the project but, as of now, he has accreditation from the US Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation only for these four programs. Totonji is studying Health Sciences. “My grandmother died out of a serious disease. This has always been motivating me to contribute to the societal health, so that people in the area where I am from and even where I live right now can depend on medical institutions and get a quality healthcare,” she said.

Bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences takes up to four years and there are five terms each year at UOPeople. Totonji plans to continue with associate degree at the same place right after she graduates.

You might wonder how it is possible to run an online platform that has all the same things like admissions services, students, general education courses, electives, leaves of absences, papers due, independent studies and many other things as regular, built universities. President Reshef managed to find donors such as Microsoft, Bill Gates Foundation, Apple, IBM that believed in his idea and started investing into the platform, so that expenses, for instance, on online textbooks would be covered. Over 7,000 volunteers across the globe reached out to President Reshef to assist with staff-related tasks and teaching. UOPeople was established in 2009. It has been developing, finding its concept and gaining attention. It got popular right after the same ad, which popped up to me, was posted online in 2018.

Totonji’s professors are from the Princeton University, University of Edinburgh, New York University, Yale, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania and Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. All these people have gathered to unite their forces and make an education revolution. “It really feels like a real university. There are classes with maximum of 25 students, so that professors can listen to all of us. They are teaching through a livestream system. We have a portal where we receive our assignments and upload them before deadlines,” said Totonji.

More than 200 countries are represented on the virtual campus of UOPeople. There are some graduate programs in Business and Education. However, undergraduate programs are the most popular. UOPeople is advertised as a tuition-free institution but students are required to pay some money at the end of each year. “We have to pay over 100 US Dollars before our final exams. It’s for some administrative expenses. However, students, who don’t have enough money, can apply for scholarships. That’s what I did in my first year,” she said.

Even though UOPeople has some successful graduates, its concept is skeptically perceived by prospective employers. According to Totonji, disbelief exists because the acceptance rate of UOPeople is very high. Almost everybody who applies can get enrolled and this makes the platform less prestigious or competitive. People can learn but the attractiveness of their degree and education is under a question mark for employers who don’t trust in online classes. “I think that the acceptance rate must go down. However, this will also create obstacles for many. I’m not sure how everything will go but the idea must remain: this university belongs to people. It’s run BY people and FOR people,” she said.

Totonji is a junior now. She has one more year left at UOPeople. She plans to continue her studies after graduation and to work somewhere in Morocco. Meanwhile, almost every evening, she sits down over a medium-sized table in her apartment. Her landlord reads newspapers and magazines on a couch in front of her. They live right next to Le P’Tit Resto and listen to chansons on Friday and Saturday evenings. Totonji types on her computer, proofreads her papers before submission and taps her feet to musical tunes. “I’m sorry, I have to leave. I have a class in French now,” said Totonji, smiled again and waved a hand in the camera.

Originally published at advancedwritingjmc.wordpress.com on October 17, 2018.