University life in Ouagadougou

I (Nancy) have been meeting with the students who live in the Student Hostel one by one in order to get to know them. I have learned a great deal not only about their individual lives, but also about the challenges that face ordinary Burkinabe children who wish to pursue their education. Here are some of the situations that our students have lived through:

  • Several students left home when they reached the equivalent of Grade 6 (sixieme in the French system) because there was no middle school or high school in their home town. They move to a larger center where they live with a relative – sometimes just an older sibling. Some of our students have been living among students without adult supervision from the time they were 13 or 14!
  • Several students have had to figure out how to pay for their studies even before they get to university. In fact, even public education costs money. So if the student’s parents cannot afford to send him/her to school then he/she has to make enough money to cover the cost of studies. Many students have worked alongside their studies or in the summer time and put themselves through high school.
  • One student had to attend night school so that he could work during the day. The problem is that night school does not give the student the same number of hours and so in exam years (see below) the night school students are at a clear disadvantage. This student found a family connection who was willing to cover his costs for the two exam years. Although he had not had the equivalent preparation as the other students in his class, he passed the exams when he was able to study full-time.
  • Once the students arrive at university, financial costs are not the greatest challenge they face. If they have good results from their BAC exam which they take at the end of high school, they only need to pay the equivalent of $30.00 to register. As well, the state provides a small assistance for those students. However, there is no possibility of getting student loans, so the students still need either family support or else financial opportunities in order to cover their living expenses.
  • The greater challenge for many students is the sheer number of classmates. Some first year programs have over 2,000 students. Rather than dividing them into smaller groups, these 2,000 plus students sit in the same conference hall to take core classes with one professor. Those students who are at the back may not be able to see what is written on the blackboard, but that is not an acceptable excuse for not passing an exam!
  • The professors often make the first year extremely challenging in order to reduce the numbers in the upper years. One student told me in first year there were over 1800 students, but only 500 (less than one-third!) passed into second year!
  • Along with huge classes, the students must also put up with very irregular schedules. One program puts out the course schedule week by week rather than semester by semester. From one week to the next your classes may be offered on different days or at different times. This means that it is very difficult to have any other commitments (such as regular work hours.) Classes can start as early as 7:00 AM or go as late as 9:00 PM and there are frequently classes or even exams on Saturday mornings.
  •  Many times the professors engage in other activities to augment their salaries. When there is a conflict between teaching at the public university and other activities, it is often the university that is deprived. Therefore, in certain classes it is difficult to get all the required hours in or to cover the required content before the exam period. This also affects the students’ ability to be successful in their program.
  • Several years ago, there were a series of strikes by students who were dissatisfied with a number of things on campus. As a result, many programs no longer follow the usual academic calendar. Some students graduate from high school in July and wait an entire year (June of the following year) to begin their studies. What is particular difficult about this is that the students are not contacted and given a date for the beginning of their program. It is their responsibility to keep track by visiting the campus regularly or by asking another student who is on campus to check for them. One student came to Ouagadougou (from her home 400 KM away) for a wedding and then stayed because the program began a few days later!
  • Many of the students do not have computers. It is possible, however, for a professor to make reading material available only electronically. One student finally had access to the material needed to prepare for an exam three days before the exam. While he was not able to read all of it, he got enough information to pass.

In spite of these many challenges, our students are succeeding in their studies. They face a great deal of odds with courage and faith. I am very proud of them.

The organization of the elementary and high school system in Burkina Faso:

Primary school (not counting kindergarten) is six years. At the end of primary school, the students write an exam. Those who pass are allowed to go on to the next stage. They are awarded a Certificate: abbreviated as CEPE.

The next stage is called “college” and lasts for four years: 6, 5, 4, 3. At the end of the level called “third” they write another exam. Those who pass receive the BPC or Brevet and are allowed to go on to the next level. ) It is not unusual for a student to take this exam several times. Many students drop out at this point if they are not successful.

The final three years are taken at “lycee”: 2nd, 1st and terminal. At this point, the student is oriented into a particular area: arts (history, geography, languages), sciences and maths, or business (secretarial or accounting. The student who continues on to university will be streamed into programs that correspond to the courses he/she took at lycee.

At the end of the third year, the students write a series of exams (including a four-hour philosophy exam!) as well as taking oral exams in certain classes. The students who pass are awarded a Baccalaureate and may go on to university. It is not unusual for a student to take this exam several times.

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