A Colorado Kid Brings Education–and Hope–to Young Refugees in Uganda

How a Colorado student helps young people in a refugee camp create their own opportunities

DoSomething, headed by Fast Company columnist Nancy Lublin, has recognized four young social entrepreneurs with $10,000 grants–and one with a prize of $100,000. Fast Company will profile one of these enterprising youth each day this week.

Eric Glustrom

Seven years ago, a 17-year-old kid from Boulder, Colorado, boarded a plane bound for a refugee camp in Uganda. He’d seen pictures of Ugandan refugees–dusty, shirtless children loitering in front of straw huts–and he’d read about their lives–the food shortages, sweltering heat, disease and fear that ravage the camps. He had started the Amnesty International club at his high school, and felt as if he should do something more to help those poor people, though, in typical high-school fashion, he wasn’t sure what.

So Eric Glustrom (left) decided to make a documentary film about Kyangwali Refugee Settlement. File this in the “seemed like a good idea at the time” category: He had no idea what to expect. He had never been to Africa. He had never made a movie. He certainly didn’t expect Uganda to become his home, his office, his inspiration, and his motivation for Educate!, a social enterprise that breeds social enterprises and has so far helped educate hundreds of young, poor Ugandans.

For the first weeks Glustrom was there, he still didn’t have a firm idea of what to do to help the people in the camp–a movie was nice, but how would it really change their lives? Then a student named Benson Olivier, Glustrom’s friend and the subject of his documentary, told Glustrom that African students needed one thing to change their own world: Education.

Do Something: Uganda

When Glustrom returned to the U.S. he raised money so Olivier could go to a better school. “We just did whatever it took,” Glustrom says. Then he cobbled together enough money for 22 other students and began a program of leadership seminars, coaching, and mentoring, which grew into Educate! The goal: to help those scholarship recipients start social programs in their communities. “It wasn’t an education as an end in itself, but an education as a means to leadership,” he says. “We want to help you get an education so you can lead change in your community.”

The Educate! youths have already started an antiviolence group for women, a microfinance project and an orphanage. The construction of the orphanage is an object lesson in how Educate! and its students manage to do much with little beyond chutzpah and resourcefulness. The students went to the government with their idea and asked it to donate a six-acre plot of land to the cause. Of course they had no money to build, so they farmed that land, saving $10,000, which they then used to build the orphanage.

Today, Educate!, which began with one clear-eyed Colorado kid staying up late in his Amherst dorm room, is working with 415 students at 24 partner schools across Uganda. He wants to see Educate!’s programming implemented throughout the Ugandan education system–an investment that he believes is justified by the eventual payoff. It costs around $600 to send one student through the program, and Educate! aims for a tenfold return on that investment through the student’s social enterprise. Glustrom says that “tangible return” is important to convince the Ugandan government and schools to incorporate Educate!’s curriculum into the education system.


Glustrom sees Educate! as a pilot light for schooling and social enterprise–it’s meant to build a model, not a bureaucracy, and once the curriculum is well-established in a country, Glustrom says, “then we can move on to the next country. We aren’t sure where it is going to be, but it would be great if it could be in the United States. Then once we have it proven the Educate! model can work in the United States and Uganda, that’s great proof it can be done anywhere.” And everywhere.

More winners’ stories:
Marvelyn Brown: Raising HIV Awareness, One Young Person at a Time