Czech Republic: Romani high school students receive scholarships at ceremony, sponsors are convinced education is an investment
"The fact that we are here today, and that the hall is full to the last seat, is a testament to the fact that the allegations that Romani people are not interested in education are a myth. By coming here today, you are aiding in dispelling that myth. We thank you for doing that," said Jitka Votavová, who coordinates ROMEA's Scholarship Program for Romani Students of High Schools and Higher Vocational Schools on Monday, 24 October at the opening of the celebratory gathering of scholarship recipients at the Kaiserstein Palace in Prague.
The first year of the program is being implemented this year by the ROMEA organization with the support of the Danish VELUX foundation, the Czech foundation Albators, and individual donors, most of whom are Romani community figures such as activists and business people. "When it was proposed to me that I financially support Romani students, I didn't hesitate at all. This is an investment that will be returned to us all, because thanks to education, you will achieve what you want to in life. Maybe you'll even go vote and together we will manage to break through the general indifference here," said Martin Mata, a Romani politician and successful businessman from Ústí nad Labem.
The Romani figures were contacted with a request to support the program by Monika Mihaličková, one of the project's fundraisers. "In addition to our being supported by big companies, I decided to ask individual Romani figures for support. The result was that Romani people have supported us who once were part of similar programs like you all are now, and today they are strong personalities who are a benefit to all of society. This is proof that we really do care about our future. I would like to thank all the donors, and not just the Romani ones - there were many more of them, but not all of them could come today," Mihaličková told those in attendance.
The 50 students who came to the ceremony from all over the Czech Republic are students attending the broadest possible range of institutions, from teacher-training schools, nursing schools, and schools focused on law and security to fields such as computer technology and engineering. Selective college preparatory schools were also represented.
"I chose this field because I know I will find a job easily when I complete my studies. My Mom is raising me on her own, I have to pay to commute to school, for textbooks and other school supplies. Thanks to the scholarship we are managing and I can finish my studies without worrying," explained Michal, a computer technology student in the third year of the Secondary Industrial Technology School in Ostrava, as to why he applied for the scholarship.
That is exactly the purpose of supporting Romani students in high school and higher vocational school: "The Romani scholarship program was launched in January of this year and aims to give young people from socially disadvantaged environments an equal chance, to facilitate their studying according to their capabilities and dreams so their parents don't have to get into debt to finance their studies, which is a frequent phenomenon in Romani families. We all know that educated Romani people will benefit all of society," explained Votavová.
A component of the support is an option to access regular tutoring or other courses leading to personal development. The scholarship recipients also had the opportunity to meet those who have supported the program in person at the meeting.
Christian Holtet came to Prague on behalf of the Danish foundation of the VELUX company, which donates most of its income to projects focused on education and social issues. Silke Horáková, chair of the administrative board of the Albtatros Foundation, which was established just this year, also had a message of encouragement for the students: "You now have a unique opportunity to change your lives, you can become economists, lawyers, one of you might even become President, it's up to you. You have a unique opportunity. Be an example to others and do your best to return what you have received yourself. Help other Romani children. Offer to tutor them. Change the world that way."
The students also got the opportunity to personally thank their sponsors for support: "I'd like to thank the Romea organization and other foundations for aiding us in this way," scholarship recipient Michal Gábor told the gathering.
Andrea Grunzová, a student in the fourth year of a high school for teacher training who would like to become a primary school teacher, also spoke. "Education is one of the most important things there is and should be provided to all. Thank you all for making it possible for us to get an education and to do what we actually want to do," Andrea told the sponsors of the program.
It was not easy for the students to be accepted to the program. "The invited students were subjected to rather strict criteria when assessed by the three-member selection commission and the students' academic records and the social situations of their families played the main roles. This event, which is being held in the truly extraordinary spaces of the Kaiserstein Palce, was designed by us as a certain kind of reward, a gift to their parents and to all the students, most of whom are coming to Prague for the first time ever on this occasion," Votavová said.
Another component of the project are the weekend meetings of students that will be held regularly during the course of the year. Inspiration for these regular meetings was drawn from previous such events organized by the Athinganoi association, which brought Romani students together at the start of the 1990s.
"The aim was to support the identity of young Romani people, who have a tendency, after they successfully integrate, to forget their roots. Meeting with other successful Romani people not only aids them with becoming proud of their origins, it also helps them become successful in their fields and to function in mainstream society," said Yveta Kenety, a former participant in previous such meetings who now currently coordinates scholarship programs for Romani secondary school students and for college and university students.
One such meeting has already happened this year aiming to motivate the scholarship recipients. "Going to that meeting this summer was the best thing that could have happened. Not only did I get to know brilliant people and learn new things, but mainly it gave me motivation to work on myself, to finish school," Michal Gábor said.
The aim of the entire program is not just to support students financially: "We want to aid with your growth and to work with you so your self-confidence will increase, but also we want you to remain Romani, to be proud of who you are so you won't lose your identity. My big wish for you is that you will be both successful and proud of your origins," Mihaličková told the gathering.
The main point of the meeting was to ceremoniously award the scholarships to each student, who were watched by approximately 100 audience members. Their parents and representatives of other nonprofit organizations or foundations involved in education were in attendance, as was the state administration, represented, for example, by Czech Senator Václav Láska.
"I did not want to miss this event, because at a time when the majority population is constantly complaining even though they live in prosperity, I wanted to meet people who might have reason to complain and who do not, who instead are moving forward, even though the place they first start from is far behind everybody else. I greatly admire all of you and it is an enormous honor to be among you," the senator told the students.
The public portion of the meeting ended with a performance by conservatory students David and Robin Kandráč, who performed on piano and saxophone. Singer Ivana Kandráčová accompanied them.
The first year of the program saw more than 100 applications sent to the ROMEA organization, but only 60 students could be supported for the 2016/17 school year. If enough money can be raised, the number of students supported will gradually increase.
ROMEA has many years of experience administering scholarships, as it is managing the Roma Education Fund scholarship program for Romani college students in the Czech Republic for the sixth year in a row. More information about the programs for support to Romani students is at www.romskastipendia.cz.
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