Reflections from the USAID Higher Education Global Evidence Summit 2022
In Conversation with Samantha Alvis
Engaging youth as leaders and co-creators today will create a better world tomorrow
In spring 2022, USAID brought together research community members, development practitioners, and USAID staff for the inaugural Higher Education Global Evidence Summit. Over the three-week virtual event, participants shared how higher education systems can be strengthened to promote social and economic development in USAID partner countries through the interrelated themes of employability, innovation, and private sector engagement. Samantha Alvis, Higher Education Senior Advisor for USAID’s Center for Education, played an instrumental role in conceptualizing the event, ensuring its success, and serving as speaker and host. In a conversation with Samantha, she reflected on what the Summit was able to accomplish, emerging themes, significant takeaways, and key recommendations on applying event insights to achieve better development results.
Can you tell me about the Summit? Why did the event happen? What was the purpose and goal?
Once USAID’s Center for Education released the USAID Higher Education Learning Agenda in 2020, we were thinking about how we can execute the learning agenda. Also, as we were standing up the Higher Education Learning Network (HELN), it made sense to do an event to connect the learning network with the learning agenda.
It was a year in the making. About this time last year, the Leading Through Learning Global Platform (LTLGP) conducted a call for concepts. So, we put together a concept to conduct an evidence learning event focused on the learning agenda.
I’m curious about how the learning agenda informed the structure. How did you bring this to life?
The learning agenda has ten questions, which we knew were too many to discuss for one Summit, so we narrowed the focus. Aside from the learning agenda questions informing the structure, we wanted this to be an interactive event with networking opportunities even though the Summit would be conducted virtually. Also, acknowledging virtual meeting fatigue, we wanted to create a space that was engaging beyond just formal event sessions.
USAID Higher Education Learning Agenda Learning Questions
All ten learning agenda questions fit into three categories or types of evidence needs: dissemination, generation, and capture. Through this framing, we determined which questions had current activities or an already robust evidence base. Then, we did two community sessions and a pre-Summit poll to ask people to tell us which topics were most important. The three we landed on were questions 4 (focusing on employability), 6 (on innovation ecosystems), and 7 (on private sector engagement).
Why do you believe higher education work is important for development? What is your role at USAID and what was your role in the Summit?
I am passionate about the work I do. Not everybody wants to pursue a higher education, but if you want to, you should be able to have access. I am a first-generation college graduate. I never thought I would get a Ph.D., but here I am. Higher education has really transformed my life.
In our work at USAID, higher education is critical to achieving development outcomes regardless of the sector we’re working in. If you don’t have strong higher education systems, you don’t have strong agricultural systems, you don’t have strong health systems, and you don’t have strong democracy. If you tie this back to our Higher Education Program Framework, higher education systems are where people receive education and training. Often, it is where impactful research and innovation is generated. Higher education also plays a critical role in community engagement and outreach. We saw this during COVID-19, with higher education institutions running mental health hotlines and creating personal protective equipment.
Higher Education’s Response to COVID-19Learn More
For my role in the Summit, I was an originator, but I saw myself as the chief cheerleader. I also had the honor of being a co-emcee for the event. I worked behind the scenes to ensure the event aligned with our learning agenda and the Higher Education Program Framework. The intention of the event was to advance our learning to help inform our higher education programming, regardless of the sector or region.
What did you learn as originator, co-emcee, and attendee? Any major takeaways?
My favorite part of the event was hearing from the youth. Particularly, during the Employability Week panel when youth shared their path from education to employment. At the Center for Education, we’ve worked hard the last four years for higher education programming to integrate a positive youth development approach. This event reinforced how important it is to engage youth (defined as 10-29 years of age in USAID’s Youth in Development Policy) in solutions that address issues that affect them.
Watch the recording below to hear Albina Tortbayeva, international development professional and youth speaker, share challenges and recommendations in youth education and employability.
We often hear that students aren’t leaving higher education with the skills that employers need or want, but why are we blaming the students rather than the systems that failed them? I was inspired to be more thoughtful in my work. I’m delighted that we had youth integrated into the Summit. Our breakout sessions, poster sessions, and lightning talks also had good youth representation.
Watch the recording below to hear Ananya Singh, a graduate student at Jawaharlal Nehru University and youth speaker, reflect on key takeaways and recommendations from day two of the Summit’s week on employability.
Another important aspect was relationships and collaborations, specifically in private sector engagement. Building trust is essential, whether you are working on higher education and industry collaborations or higher education research.
As major takeaways from the Summit, you mentioned opportunities for higher education to integrate positive youth development, private sector engagement, and systems strengthening into the work.
Do you have any advice for USAID staff on how they can be applying this integrative and cross-topical approach in their work across the range of development sectors?
Having an awareness of the positive youth development framework is important. Also, we need to ensure we are supporting an enabling environment and thinking about meaningful ways to integrate youth voices. From the USAID perspective, thinking about how we can engage local youth groups and Missions to help inform activity design and leverage youth as co-creators is important. When thinking about implementation—and our implementing partners—how can we make sure youth are employed? A great example is the Kefeta activity in Ethiopia, which has engaged youth from activity concept through implementation.
On private sector engagement, we need to figure out how to create mutually beneficial relationships and identify two-way learning opportunities. We don’t individually have all the answers to these learning agenda questions which is why we need to work collectively. This was one of the aspects that we wanted to address through the Summit. For context, we never say that we’re striving to answer the learning agenda questions because there aren’t single answers. Instead, we say we’re seeking to address these questions—considering every context is different.
Are there helpful resources that folks can access to support this work?
We released a Higher Education and Innovation Ecosystems primer during the Summit. Right before the Summit, we released the Higher Education and Industry Collaborations primer. These are meant to be tools that are most relevant for the context and conditions you’re working in. These primers are also an excellent example of engaging youth since they were produced by Center for Education interns through the Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) program.
All event resources and materials, including session recordings, are posted and linked on EducationLinks. In the future, when we ask people to submit proposals and resources, we will be doing an evidence synthesis or summary. We’re aiming to publish the next one in the fall.
USAID’s Higher Education Global Evidence Summit brought together more than 1,400 attendees over three weeks. The Summit team harnessed the passions of the participants by taking an inclusive user-centered approach to inform the event design which contributed to the rich discussions, presentations, and meet-ups. Participants showed great interest in youth who took center stage during the Summit to speak on issues they felt mattered most, as well as ways to address them. For more information on the Summit or USAID Center for Education’s work in higher education, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.