Some people take a while to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. Not Shanyn Ronis, ESIA BA ’09. Within a few short years after graduating, she founded The Education Global Access Program (E-Gap), a global nonprofit that trains teachers in conflict zones and areas of extreme poverty. To recognize her work, Shanyn has been named one of this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30, joining trailblazers Mark Zuckerberg, Snapchat’s Evan Spiegle, SNL’s Kate McKinnon, and Chance the Rapper.
“It’s staggering to think we’re in the middle of a refugee crisis, with more refugees now than during the Holocaust of World War II,” says Shanyn. “We have to do something about it—quickly—and we have to make sure the children of these refugees don’t end up becoming a lost generation because they don’t have access to education.”
In response to this urgent global situation, Shanyn, still in her 20s, launched E-Gap in 2013.
As founder and executive director, Shanyn drives the strategic vision and manages programs, fundraising, and marketing campaigns. Her efforts have attracted numerous volunteers and staff members—both in E-Gap’s U.S. and Africa locations—but because the organization is still in ‘start-up’ mode, Shanyn remains hands-on in all areas of operations.
“If I could do anything different, I would invest more energy and funding in our infrastructure early on,” she says. “We have been so focused on executing programs and establishing a track record of success that even though we have over 5,000 beneficiaries, we are operating on a shoestring budget with limited staff, which has had an impact on our ability to grow.”
According to Shanyn, 85 percent of the teachers trained by E-Gap are themselves refugees—from Syria, Somalia, Nigeria, and places all over the world afflicted by manmade or natural disasters. “Their situations are heartbreaking,” she says. “I’ve received emails that say one of our beneficiaries has passed away in childbirth, or a vehicle was attacked by a terrorist group, or someone has fallen victim to a roadside bomb.” On more than one occasion, projects have come to a halt because a key stakeholder has been taken hostage. Groups like Boko Haram and ISIS pose a constant threat because these terrorist groups tend to target education providers.
“Teachers don’t want to work in a place where they fear for their lives,” says Shanyn. “We see empty schoolhouses and kids staring at empty chalkboards. But we also see parents, grandparents, neighbors, and friends stepping up to fill that empty role of teacher. These volunteers may or may not have a formal education, and basic literacy is often questionable. But they are willing to show up—every day. These are the real heroes.”
Shanyn describes her time at GW as having a significant influence on her decision to start E-Gap. As a dual major in international affairs and anthropology, she has a broad perspective on both the global politics of aid and development practices that work. “I designed a lot of programs around the development approach learned in my anthropology classes, ensuring that my programs are locally led,” she says. “Most of the time, my Kenya-based staff advises me on programs—not the other way around—and I think that has been the keystone to our success.”
Clearly, Shanyn defines success by how many people she has reached rather than by the number of awards she has won.
Still, being identified as a Forbes 30 Under 30 is pretty cool.
“I was on my laptop in bed with my dog curled up at my feet—my standard, work-at-home set-up—when the congratulatory email came through,” Shanyn laughs. “I immediately called my husband to share the good news. The dog spent the rest of the day hiding under the bed. Apparently, I was making some pretty terrifying noises of excitement!” —Mary Follin