Changemakers

First steps towards greater educational access: Matine Khalighi

How students are supporting their peers experiencing homelessness.

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First Steps - An interview series produced by Ashoka. Changemakers tell us how they began to make a difference in the world, all starting with one or two first steps.

 

By Manat Kaur

InIn the shift to virtual learning, the resource and access divide between privileged and low-income students has widened even further.

While working with homeless students in Colorado, Matine Khalighi learned about the educational barriers they face. He started EEqual to provide financial assistance so that every student, regardless of their socioeconomic status, can get a high-quality education.

Matine connected with Ashoka Young Changemaker Manat Kaur and shared more about finding your focus, the importance of research, and how to listen with an open mind.

Tell us about your project.

EEqual is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to leveling the playing field for young people experiencing homelessness. As fellow youth, we want to be the ones that are supporting students struggling with poverty by investing in their education. Our peers are suffering so we should have a stake in making a difference.

EEqual provides students scholarships to go to school. We also have a micro-grant program that can help students get any school-related resource that they may need, like a graphing calculator or computer.

When did you first realize you had to take action, and how did you come up with the idea?

When I was in 8th grade, I took a community service class that was centered around making a difference. This inspired me to start Helping the Homeless Colorado, a youth-led nonprofit organization. We raised over $140,000, provided thousands of basic necessities to homeless people, and even financed scholarships to send homeless students to college.

After working on Helping the Homeless for four years, my team began to realize that our mission was very broad. We were trying to do too much and spread ourselves too thin, making it harder to be effective.

In addition, I began learning about the particular need to support students in poverty and homelessness. You know, these students are concerned with where they are going to spend the night, not how they are going to finish their homework. They must do so much to just survive, Going to college or finishing school work is often their last priority.

To be more targeted and focused, we began a nine-month process to transform Helping the Homeless Colorado into EEqual. This way, we can focus on mitigating economic inequalities.

What was your first step?

Research. With Helping the Homeless Colorado, we made the mistake of assuming we knew what the population we served needed.

I have never been homeless. Moreover, none of my close friends have been in extreme poverty or homelessness. I have no way of knowing what these students need. So we decided that our first step at EEqual was going to be to learn about these students: how do they interact with their peers? What is a day in life like for them? What resources do they have access to? What do they struggle with? Who do they look to for help?

We dedicated the first two months of the nine-month process to research. We interviewed experts with experience working with students in poverty , read books, talked to students in poverty, and learned from teachers. We made it our responsibility to learn about how we could best support them.

How did you start implementing your idea?

EEqual currently has one active program: the Scholarship Awards Program. Our scholarship program pays for the tuition of students in need to pursue a higher level of education. It has been carried over from Helping the Homeless Colorado, as it was shown to be effective when it comes to breaking the cycle of poverty.

Our scholarship currently operates at over 30 institutions across the state of Colorado. We have supported 5 students so far. Building this program was a challenge. The first year we tried it, we only ended up getting two applicants. The problem was that students in need struggle to self-identify the situation they are in. We had to partner with the right institutions so that these students would feel more comfortable interacting with our programs.

 

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Matine in a Zoom meeting with his team.

 

What obstacles have you faced, and how did you overcome them?

Students dealing with poverty and homelessness don’t often feel comfortable identifying themselves as needing help. The social pressures that these students face are unimaginable.

For this reason, we struggled to identify and communicate with students in need. So when we were designing the ideas behind our programs, we had to always deal with the fact that we can’t reach out to these students directly. Our programs need to be inclusive, safe, and discrete enough for them to come forward themselves. So we approached this challenge in a few different ways through our different programs.

For our scholarship program, we teamed up with the Colorado Community College Foundation to operate our scholarship. Through this we found that because most of the students that are in need are already receiving support from them, students are more comfortable putting down an application with it.

We also have a micro-grant program, which operates entirely online. This means that students can apply online and we will be able to send their resources to their institution. By removing the step of self-identification for students, this makes it easier and more comfortable for them to apply.

And we also support students through a classroom supply bank that supports Title 1 schools, which generally don’t have enough school supplies, giving more students access.

Who else supported you through your journey? What role did they play?

I worked with a wonderful executive team of 6 members who helped create all of EEqual’s programs. In addition, we worked with two adult advisory boards that guided us through the journey of creating EEqual. These consisted of teachers, experts within the field, business owners, and people involved in media and PR.

What advice would you give other young people who want to make a difference but don’t know where to begin?

I think that it is really important to spend the time to learn about the population that you are trying to serve. We don’t need more organizations. We need organizations that are making a real change. The only way that someone can do that is by spending the time to learn about who they are trying to support.

So read, interview, and consult. Let people’s expertise guide the creation of your programing.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The First Steps series, founded by Ashoka Young Changemaker Manat Kaur, aims to demystify changemaking and show how anyone can start making a change. Follow Ashoka to learn more about young changemaker stories.

 

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