U.S. colleges, advocacy groups working to support refugee students

In response to the Afghan and Ukrainian refugee crises, higher education organizations are working to make it easier for institutions to help students forced to flee their home countries. U.S. colleges and universities are also helping resettle refugee students and ensure their access to educational opportunities.

Effort to facilitate university sponsorship

There is a significant opportunity to strengthen refugees’ access to higher education. According to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, only 5 percent of refugee students ever enroll in a postsecondary program.

As conflicts, drought, and famine displace more and more families, the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration,—of which Georgetown President John J. DeGioia is a founding member—is working to address visa barriers. According to Diverse Issues in Higher Education, the Alliance is urging the U.S. State Department to create a new category for refugees and immigrants on the F1 visa used by most international students; doing so, would allow universities to sponsor refugee students.

Laura Wagner, project manager for the initiative on U.S. education pathways for refugee students, says she hopes for a decision this spring, adding that “if Afghanistan and Ukraine have shown us anything, it’s that higher education is ready and willing [to help], we just don’t have the systems set up for them to give their full support.”

Universities open their doors

U.S. colleges are also using their resources to help resettle refugee students on campuses here and abroad. The University of Chicago has announced that it will provide full-tuition undergraduate scholarships for students affected by the war in Ukraine, along with college-readiness programming, increased financial support, and expanded fellowship programs for current college students who cannot continue their education in Ukraine. Bard College has worked with the Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan governments to help more than 200 Afghan refugee students find new beginnings on its campuses in New York and Berlin.

In response to a request from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, University of the People (UoPeople), an American-accredited online university, will be awarding 1,000 scholarships to Ukrainian students so they can take classes with the university this spring, Inside Higher Ed reports. While UoPeople courses are tuition-free, the scholarships cover all costs for associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree programs, including the $60 application fee, $120 exam fees at the end of each undergraduate course, and $240 exam fees for graduate-level courses. After meeting with officials from the Ukrainian Ministry of Education, the university also agreed to open up all its classes to Ukrainian students whose universities have been closed or disrupted by the war. Of the university’s more than 117,000 students,10,500 are refugees from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, Syria, and other countries experiencing political and environmental turmoil.

Southern New Hampshire University, which, in addition to providing courses on campus, enrolls more than 100,000 students online, started the Global Education Movement, a tuition-free, competency-based online learning program for refugees. The university currently has 630 refugee students enrolled in countries including Kenya, Lebanon, Malawi, Rwanda, and South Africa, in partnership with community organizations on the ground that offer support services.

Arizona State University (ASU) also has helped refugees resettle in the U.S. Pamela DeLargy, director of ASU’s Education for Humanity program, worked with the International Rescue Committee to bring 63 Afghan students to ASU’s Tempe campus after the fall of Kabul. Rangina Hamidi, an Afghan refugee who once served as the country’s education minister and now works as a professor at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, tells Diverse Issues that she hopes “we can open up our doors and homes and communities and welcome people who are forced to leave and flee their homes, not because they wanted to but because they have to.”

Oklahoma State University (OSU), meanwhile, is using its housing, English language instruction, and workforce opportunities to help the state government fulfill its intention of taking in as many displaced Afghan refugees as possible. OSU leaders note that the institution’s English as Second Language faculty had to find new, creative ways to teach English to Pashto speakers who were illiterate. University stakeholders also have worked to meet the needs of refugees suffering from the trauma and depression of leaving behind their homeland and, in some cases, their families.

“This is what we’re set up to do,” says Dr. Randy Kluver, dean of the school of Global Studies and Partnerships. “We train people to solve problems, and this refugee crisis has created, for us, an unprecedented opportunity to put this in action.”

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