Narrowing the Gap to Extend Scholarships To All

By Lisa Kocay '16

Scholarships are meant to provide access to education for students who don’t have the financial resources to obtain education. However, do scholarships reach those who need it most?

Budi Waluyo at Lehigh UniversityMany scholarships require the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam, which is very expensive to take and usually requires purchasing resources for preparation. When a student from a disadvantaged area applies for a scholarship, they may be ineligible for the scholarship just because they cannot afford the TOEFL exam.

Budi Waluyo, a PhD student at Lehigh from Indonesia, is helping students from disadvantaged areas meet scholarship requirements. Waluyo saw a need to help disadvantaged students in Indonesia prepare to take the TOEFL exam. He created the Sekolah TOEFL program, an online free TOEFL course delivered through a blog, WhatsApp, and Facebook. Since its launch in May 2015, over 7,000 Indonesians have registered for the course.

In the program, Waluyo uploads a handbook with English skills to the blog each Monday. On the following Sunday, he posts the answers to the skill questions on Facebook. He said he has to be on his computer all day to answer any questions the students may have, and he replies to all of them. The students can then converse with him and other students in the current class throughout the week on WhatsApp. He is also responsible for answering questions, even though he may have over 1,000 notifications from the app at one time. Waluyo is currently teaching the third class he has offered since the program’s launch.

Waluyo said the time commitment is the biggest challenge of running the program. However, he said it’s rewarding to help others succeed.

“We cannot really say that somebody cannot do something well if he or she doesn’t have the privilege to learn about it,” he said. “If we give them opportunities, they may be able to perform even better.”

He said if a disadvantaged student is committed to their goals and seeing the opportunity they’re given as a once-in-a-lifetime chance, then they may be more likely to work harder and appreciate it.

Having come from a disadvantaged situation lacking financial resources, Waluyo knows the struggles of overcoming this obstacle. He applied for the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program, and was able to meet the requirements for this program because it paid for him to take the TOEFL exam. He was notified two weeks prior to the exam that he was one of the students chosen to take it for free.

However, he couldn’t afford outside help to prepare for the exam. He said he prepared by himself and although it was hard, he was able to score well enough to become a recipient of the scholarship. This allowed him to attend the University of Manchester for a master’s degree in educational technology and TESOL (teaching English for speakers of other languages).

Now a recipient of the Fulbright Presidential Scholarship at Lehigh to receive a PhD in comparative and international education, he said he wouldn’t have the opportunities he has had if the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program didn’t pay for him to take the TOEFL exam.

Waluyo worries that the scholarships tend to cater to those who come from financially stable situations. Since the TOEFL is so costly to take and prepare for, he worries scholarships requiring the TOEFL will inevitably extend the gap between the disadvantaged and those who are privileged. 

He said having come from a disadvantaged area, he feels more responsible to help others who are disadvantaged because he is from that background. Despite how much he has done to help others through the program, he still feels the need to do more. The only thing stopping him at the moment is his academic responsibilities.

He hopes that Sekolah TOEFL program will grow to become an online program created for students in disadvantaged areas. However, there are barriers he has to overcome, such as making sure the program is friendly with the Internet connection. Because the Internet connection in villages isn’t strong, he would not be able to upload videos to this potential program. He wishes to create a program that allows the students to teach themselves and will cover more English-learning programs than TOEFL, such as the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

Beyond his work with the Sekolah TOEFL program, Waluyo has given seminars and workshops in Indonesia that are focused on scholarships and studying abroad. He has also published four books – two available in bookstores and two available online for free. His most recent one is titled “Inspirasi Paman Sam” and was endorsed by Lehigh engineering professor Nelson Tansu.

Waluyo worries that if scholarship sponsors overlook the gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged by putting the TOEFL or IELTS as the first requirement, then only financially stable students will be able to apply. He believes this will lead to advantaged students becoming the dominant scholarship recipients, thus widening the between the advantaged and disadvantaged.

“We need to think do the scholarships really reach those who need it, or not?” 

Watch Waluyo discuss his work at a TEDx event at Lehigh earlier this year.