A Push to Bring Refugees to College

A Push to Bring Refugees to College

Dawood Mayom made it through. The South Sudanese refugee managed to get all the way from Egypt to Columbia University, where he’s pursuing a master’s degree in social work. To enroll, he had to leave behind his wife and young son. He also had to overcome a complex bureaucratic system that in many ways worked against him. Just getting the passport he needed was an arduous task that almost proved impossible.

Mayom, a thoughtful 33-year-old who hopes to become a professor one day, knows that he’s an exception. For one thing, Columbia gave him a generous scholarship for displaced students that allowed him to attend. But scholarships for students like him are few and far between.

Only a fraction of young refugees throughout the world have access to higher education, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, known as UNHCR. “Refugees are living in a difficult situation,” Mayom says. “They often don’t have the right certification, or their high-school education is not complete, or they don’t have the money to pay.”

A major new initiative could help. The Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration on Thursday announced a new campaign to create a college-sponsorship program enabling refugee students to resettle in the United States, enroll at a participating postsecondary institution, and obtain legal permanent residence. Under that plan, qualified refugees would enter the country under a new private-sponsorship category of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Participating colleges wouldn’t just enroll and educate those students; as official sponsors, they would provide them with financial, social, and logistical support, too.

In May this year, the Presidents’ Alliance, a group of more than 500 college leaders, unveiled the Initiative for U.S. Education Pathways for Refugees Students, which would significantly increase the number of refugee students enrolled at U.S. institutions — and give them the opportunity to stay in the country for good. Several other organizations, including UNHCR and the Global Task Force on Third Country Education Pathways, helped shape the project.

Recently, representatives from more than 60 colleges and organizations produced a new report full of recommendations for developing the sponsorship program. “This is the moment for the U.S. to embark on the essential next step in expanding refugee access to higher education,” the report says. “The need for additional legal pathways for refugees is vast, and the disparity in access to higher education, immense.”

The plan comes in response to a global crisis. Forced displacement has doubled over the last decade, and a record number of people around the world had to flee their homes in 2020. By the end of that year, more than 82 million people were displaced worldwide, according to UNHCR. An estimated 1.4 million people are in need of resettlement, but fewer than 1 percent of refugees are resettled each year. All of that adds up to an international college-access problem: While 39 percent of students worldwide are able to attend a postsecondary institution, just 5 percent of young refugees can.

As The Chronicle reported in June, refugee students hoping to attend college in the United States encounter immense barriers. They usually lack a knowledgeable guide to help them navigate the admissions process, which includes requirements that are often difficult, if not impossible, for them to fulfill. (Students living in refugee camps often can’t get letters of recommendation.) Most refugees lack the means to cover application and testing fees — not to mention the cost of attendance if they’re admitted to a U.S. college.

Moreover, the F-1 visa system, which allows international students to live in the U.S. only temporarily, is especially complex for refugee students. Even those who manage to obtain an F-1 visa don’t get a permanent answer to a pressing question: Where will I live after I get my degree?

Mayom asks himself that all the time. “For refugees, there’s this narrowing of the future,” he says. “We are often just thinking about basic needs: What am I going to eat today? How am I going to pay the rent?”

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds, AFP, Getty Images

Refugees await their next transport after arriving at Dulles International Airport, in Virginia, this summer.

On track to earn his master’s next year, Mayom isn’t sure what he will do after that. Maybe, he says, he will try to seek employment in his field, which would allow him stay in the U.S. for one more year with his F-1 visa. Or maybe he will apply to a Ph.D. program. Or maybe he will apply for asylum, which would require a lawyer and, in all likelihood, many years of waiting for an answer, during which his family couldn’t join him in the U.S. Or maybe he will try to return to South Sudan. Or maybe he will try to reunite with his family and get a job in Egypt, which could prove difficult after leaving the country on an exit permit that was essentially a one-way ticket out.

Mayom communicates with his wife and son via WhatsApp and video a few days a week, from his small bedroom in a university apartment. His walls are decorated with photographs of his family. Being apart from them, he says, “is just unimaginably difficult.” But he has long believed that getting a graduate degree is crucial for his future, wherever he might end up: “If you don’t have an education, actually you are nothing.”

Recently, Mayom heard about the initiative to create the college-sponsorship program, which, the report says, “should aim to accommodate families.” He supports the plan. After all, it was meant to give future refugee students in the U.S. things that he lacks: a path to permanent residency, a clearer glimpse of the future.

A college-sponsorship program for refugee students might sound strange to college officials in the United States, but the concept is familiar in several other countries. Just look to the north.

The World University Service of Canada, known as WUSC, manages a program that brings refugee students into the country, allowing them to enroll at postsecondary institutions as permanent residents. Mexico and Germany have similar programs. “The U.S. is behind the curve,” says Miriam Feldblum, co-founder and executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance. “We should be catching up.”

The Presidents’ Alliance and its partners modeled the blueprint for their college-sponsorship program in the U.S. on some aspects of the WUSC system. First, the proposed program would hinge on the private sponsorship of refugees. Such sponsorships enable various entities — including local clubs, businesses, and religious groups — to support immigrants accepted through resettlement programs.

Given the U.S. higher-education system’s mission and its capacity to support refugee students, the report says, colleges could play a major role in the developing private sponsorships, which would “expand the pool of refugees identified to come to the U.S., strengthen campus communities, and foster positive attitudes toward refugees and resettlement in areas where refugees are not traditionally resettled.”

Inclusion, social justice, the uplifting power of education — it’s all rhetoric until you do something with those words and enact a deed of kindness.

The proposed program would require cooperation with the federal government, just as WUSC does. And there’s reason to believe that the current administration would be ready to work with colleges. In a February 4 executive order, President Biden indicated that the creation of a private sponsorship program for refugees was likely. The administration’s recent “Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2022” describes a plan to pilot a private sponsorship program allowing refugees to enter the country under a new category in 2022. That would allow refugee students to enroll at a sponsoring U.S. college and provide a way to gain permanent residency.

“Coming here for education is certainly a refuge, but what a refugee student also needs is some certainty on their pathway,” Feldblum says. “The key here is that these students would be simultaneously admitted as students at an institution and as refugees into the country.”

Under the F-1 visa system, an international student must demonstrate “nonimmigrant intent,” proving that they have sufficient ties to their home country that will compel them to leave the U.S. after completing their studies. But refugees, by definition, lack such ties. “The requirement is so contradictory,” Feldlum says, “to their lived experience”

The proposed college-sponsorship program has many wrinkles. For one thing, it’s intended to serve resettled refugee students who are already in the U.S. — and not just incoming refugees.

Compared with their counterparts in the sponsorship program in Canada, Feldblum says, postsecondary institutions in the U.S. would play a more robust role in supporting refugee students. All refugee students in the program would also be a part of a national cohort model designed to support their special needs.

The report lays out an ambitious timeline, proposing that about 10 participating colleges would enroll a total of more than 30 students within the first two years. Within five years, the number would increase to more than 500.

Nothing about the plan is final. The federal government has not given its imprimatur to the initiative’s many proposals. As the report makes clear, there are 1,001 pragmatic details to iron out before such an ambitious plan could materialize. Like academic-eligibility criteria, selection processes, support strategies, and the creation of an “implementing organization” that would oversee the complex program and coordinate with colleges, government agencies, and various partners. Such an entity, the report says, would be responsible for helping colleges develop sustainable funding strategies to cover the considerable expense of educating refugee students.

Per-student costs would range from $41,450 to $130,100 for the students’ first year, and $38,350 to $98,400 in subsequent years, reflecting the wide variance in costs among colleges, the report says. A public-private partnership bringing together funding from various sources — including postsecondary institutions, government, philanthropies, corporations, and U.N. agencies and affiliates — would support the program and the creation of an organization to oversee it.

It’s a daunting challenge, but it’s doable, says Elsa M. Núñez, president of Eastern Connecticut State University. Núñez, who helped shape the initiative and contributed to the new report, says over time she came to understand supporting refugee students as more than just a college-access issue.

“When you see images of people living in camps and tents,” she says, “it’s clear that this is also about life and death.”

Núñez says she’s in touch with a donor who has agreed to finance the educations of two new refugee students a year at Eastern Connecticut. That’s about $25,000 for each student. If other colleges could find ways to support even a small number of refugees, she says, the impact would be significant: “This would be a sign to the world that our values are real and not just window dressing. Inclusion, social justice, the uplifting power of education — it’s all rhetoric until you do something with those words and enact a deed of kindness.”

What Nunez and other supporters of the campaign envision is a higher-education realm that finds creative ways to support more students like Athiel Mading. The soft-spoken young woman fled South Sudan with her mother and six younger siblings nearly a decade ago. After the family settled in Kenya, her mother left, she says. So she worked to support her brothers and sisters, selling peanuts on the street. She talked her way into a scholarship from a prominent school in Nairobi and later applied to several U.S. colleges.

Even after getting an acceptance and a substantial scholarship from Lehigh University earlier this year, Mading lived with uncertainty because of difficulties obtaining an F-1 visa. She lacked a Convention Travel Document,
which she needed to get the visa. “At one point,” she says, “I thought I would just give up.”

After completing that step, Mading confronted another obstacle: the cost of applying for a visa, about 18,000 Kenyan shillings. Enough, she figured, to cover the cost of food for her family for a month. KenSAP, a nonprofit group that helps high-achieving Kenyan students enroll at U.S. colleges, raised money to cover the fee, she says.

But visa-processing can be slow, and last spring Mading wasn’t sure her application would be approved, or whether an approval would come in time to enroll at Lehigh this fall. In written remarks she shared with the UNHCR in May, she described what it was like to wait: “It can be quite nerve-racking to know you have no power over the outcome.” If her visa were delayed or denied, she wrote, “I personally will need a lot of comfort, possibly therapy.”

In the end, things worked out. Mading is now enrolled at Lehigh, where she has made friends, studied hard, developed a fondness for Taylor ham sandwiches, and walked around the campus in a winter coat and mittens before the weather even turned that cold.

Mading says she would like college officials who consider the plight of refugees to keep a few things in mind. Above all, she says, refugee students tend to be “very hopeful” — and committed to their goals.

“When we do decide to do something, we’ve thought about it 1,000 times,” she says. “And it occupies our thoughts 94 percent of the day.”

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