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MIT Emerging Talent opens pathways for underserved global learners

Learners across 24 countries build technical and employment skills in a collaborative community.
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Sara Feijo
MIT Open Learning
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The MIT Emerging Talent program launched the fifth cohort of its Certificate in Computer and Data Science in September 2023 with 100 individuals. Selected from more than 2,000 applicants, 85 percent of these learners are refugees, migrants, or have been impacted by forced displacement.
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Two ambitions drive Eric Tuyizere: advancing his technological skills and following his passion for entrepreneurship. In July 2023, when he discovered that MIT’s Emerging Talent program was launching the fifth cohort of its Certificate in Computer and Data Science, he applied right away. Seven months in, he says he has found even more than he dreamed of: community and support. This unexpected benefit has turned into a key motivation for Tuyizere as he combines work on the challenging curriculum with the demands of daily life. 

“Apart from being my colleagues on the Emerging Talent program, we are friends,” says Tuyizere, a learner from Rwanda. “I really like the community.”

Tuyizere is one of 100 individuals in Emerging Talent’s current cohort, which launched in September 2023. Selected from more than 2,000 applicants, 85 percent of these learners are refugees, migrants, or have been impacted by forced displacement. They join the ranks of the more than 160 individuals who have already completed the program.

The program is the brainchild of Admir Masic, who became a teenage refugee in Croatia in 1992 after escaping from the horrors of war that was devastating his homeland in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Today, Masic is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and a faculty fellow in archaeological materials at MIT. 

“I am overwhelmed with gratitude at having made it to MIT, a place that values innovation, science, and excellence, but also with a sense of responsibility,” Masic says. “There are millions of people forcibly displaced every year — for political, economic, social, or, more recently, climate change-related reasons. How can I do my part to support those who have come after me?” 

Inspired by his life experience and conviction, Masic founded the MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT) in 2017, with the goal of developing global education programs for refugees and displaced communities. To date, ReACT has offered its Certificate in Computer and Data Science to five cohorts of talented learners across the globe, helping them grow academically, advance their skills, leverage their expertise, and access a professional career in the tech field. Together, the certificate and ReACT are now MIT Emerging Talent, a program that extends the reach and impact of MIT’s pioneering efforts to reach the most talented underserved learners. Part of the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab at MIT Open Learning, Emerging Talent is expanding ReACT's proven model of upskilling refugees to other underrepresented communities around the world including migrants, first-generation and low-income students, and historically excluded groups.

Hidden realities

According to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, more than 110 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide as of May 2023. This number is equivalent to the population of the four largest states in the United States: California, Texas, Florida, and New York. It also marks the largest ever single-year increase propelled by ongoing wars, political instability, and civil conflicts. Learners in this year's cohort come from 24 different countries, and are experiencing situations like war in Ukraine and Sudan, military persecution in Myanmar, dictatorship in Eritrea, and oppression by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Conflict-impacted learners from Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and many other countries may each have their own unique story, but their shared experience of displacement drives their desire to build their skills and education in order to improve their situation. 

“It’s like a cultural exchange, we share things like songs and dances — everything which is interesting to our own culture helps us to be more interactive,” says Tuyizere, citing in particular a dance taught to him by one of his peers from Ukraine. 

Along with MIT’s trademark rigor and relevance, a key design principle for the program is adaptation to meet the unique needs of underrepresented talent and make them feel welcomed and part of a safe learning community. For Emerging Talent’s learners, adaptation is essential for enabling peer learning, capitalizing on multicultural perspectives to benefit all, and permitting appropriate flexibility for students who come from other education systems. 

“Education has always been a challenge for women in Afghanistan,” says Somaia Zabihi, who joined the Emerging Talent team in 2023 as a computer science instructor. “Going to college for a girl used to be as strange as planning a trip to the moon. In past years, especially in big cities, some progress had been made, and girls could think about their dreams instead of being forced into marriage. Unfortunately, with the Taliban in power, things have gone backwards, taking us back even further.” 

Zabihi previously worked as the dean of computer science faculty at the University of Herat in Afghanistan, but relocated with her family to Canada because of the ongoing situation in her home country. She is currently designing custom workshops on foundational skills, delivering recitation sessions, and holding office hours for the latest cohort of Emerging Talent learners. 

Fostering opportunities

The Emerging Talent program exemplifies MIT Open Learning’s Agile Continuous Education (ACE) model. Advanced by leading educators and researchers at MIT, the ACE model is focused on providing education in a flexible, cost-effective, and time-efficient manner by combining rigorous online learning with at-work application of knowledge. In the case of the Certificate in Computer and Data Science, learners complete MIT courses on edX, and apply learned skills and gain real-life experiences through capstone projects or internships. This allows them to customize their path based on personal preferences. To augment these skills, Emerging Talent works with organizations such as Paper Airplanes for English training; the Global Mentorship Initiative and MENTEE for mentoring opportunities; Close the Gap, Give Internet, and Unconnected for device access; and Na'amal for employability skills training. 

“Now that the learners have completed the required academic classes, they are honing their skills and interests through elective courses and group project work,” Megan Mitchell, associate director for Pathways for Talent, says of the current Emerging Talent cohort. “They will be actively pursuing job opportunities that will allow them to put to practice what they have learned and bring extensive value to the companies they join.” 

From high school graduates to advanced degree seekers, Emerging Talent learners apply to the Certificate in Computer and Data Science for an opportunity. Over 70 percent of accepted learners have university degrees; yet 60 percent are unemployed, with forced geographic relocation, ongoing wars, overwhelming family responsibilities, and restrictive labor regulations to blame. The majority of those who are working are underemployed. Despite their varied situations, the program’s diverse learners soon discover a shared desire to transform their careers by acquiring new skills and experience to enhance their professional competencies and adaptability. All are looking for a way to develop their technical capabilities and contribute to society. As Kaung Hein Htet expressed in his application to Emerging Talent: “Because of the current political crisis in Myanmar, I cannot accomplish my passion and do my favorite things. I want to become a data scientist who can help people around the world.”  

By looking beyond learners’ immediate circumstances, Emerging Talent ensures that every learner is given an equal opportunity to participate and benefit from being part of the community.

“I was seen for who I am, without proof or requirement to show my hard copy diploma evaluated by some other agency,” says Pavel Illin, an asylee from Russia currently living in the United States who completed the program in 2021. After graduating, Pavel began working at the New York City Mayor's Office as a software engineer. “And the fact that I’ve been seen for just being there gives me hope that not everything is lost. It’s possible to succeed.” 

The Emerging Talent team is sourcing experiential learning opportunities for its current cohort. If you want to help support or engage a learner, email

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