With more than 110M people forcibly displaced worldwide, universities stand to gain remarkably driven refugee students who can uniquely enhance campus life and solve global issues.
For the first time ever, the number of people displaced by conflict, climate change, political persecution, and economic hardship swelled beyond 100 million last year, according to the UNHCR. From the war in Ukraine to decades-long conflict in Myanmar, there are thousands of resilient, ambitious individuals seeking an opportunity to draw on their talents—and unique life experiences—to contribute to society and rebuild their home countries.
At IIE, we believe that investing in refugees’ education is the way to help make that happen. In 2021, IIE launched the Odyssey Scholarship, a full scholarship for refugee students pursuing four-year bachelor’s degrees or two-year master’s degrees. But with the global refugee population now at more than 110 million, there’s more to do. Universities are a lifeline to answering the call.
One such institution is Western Sydney University. Since 2019, they’ve partnered with IIE’s Southeast Asia Office in Bangkok to connect refugee students with higher education, which includes scholarships and grants, university placements, and support services. One inspiring beneficiary is Zin, a remarkable young woman who went from a refugee camp on the Thailand-Myanmar border to earning an IIE Bridge Scholarship and admission to Western Sydney.
Zin was born in Karen State, a region in eastern Myanmar that has experienced decades of ethnic-based turmoil and hostilities. Following the burning of her village, Zin and her mother fled to the Mae La Refugee Camp—a harrowing three-day trek through thick forests, steep mountains, and the threat of another attack at any moment. They settled into the camp, but they faced longer-term challenges of finding work and education. Determined to build a sustainable life for herself and her mom, Zin attended the limited classes available at the camp, even though Myanmar nor Thailand did not recognize the curriculum.
A local NGO noticed Zin’s persistence and academic potential; they offered to help to prepare her for university study through a high school equivalency assessment. Through this process, Zin was eventually awarded an IIE Bridge Scholarship and is now earning her bachelor’s degree at Western Sydney University’s Vietnam campus. Her goal is to return to Myanmar to fight poverty through job creation and economic development.
Zin’s journey shows that there is great talent, potential, and eagerness among refugees and displaced students. And yet her story, while inspiring, is not unique. The challenge is to identify and prepare these students and then partner with universities poised to host them on campus. We need university leadership that values the engagement of displaced students and values their presence in their programs.
For universities looking to get involved or seeking ways to deepen engagement, here are a few suggestions:
- Find creative ways to leverage existing assets. Displaced students face varied and complex challenges, so it’s important to think creatively about how to engage with current resources. For example, some universities have leveraged their international branch campuses to overcome restrictive visa policies on their main campuses. Other examples include short-course practical training; hybrid instructional delivery options; and curriculum franchising for delivery by partners in difficult-to-access locations.
- Learn the context. Find ways to connect directly with individuals or organizations on the ground to better understand the situations from which these students come. This allows institutions to have better informed processes, accommodations, and support systems when creating programs or bringing these students into existing programs. Ideally, this would be conducted in-person but can take place via Zoom or similar virtual platforms as well.
- Collaborate to maximize funding. Covering the expenses of a university education for displaced students is a key challenge. However, it is increasingly solvable through collaboration and the collective leveraging of resources. For example, we have witnessed universities reduce tuition costs for refugees to stretch scholarship awards, raise funds through voluntary student donations, and engage the private sector to offset cost-of-living expenses.
- Share stories of success. When a video profile of Deng Adut was released in 2015, his story captivated viewers all over the world, including me. A former entrapped child soldier in South Sudan, Adut escaped conflict and eventually earned his law degree at Western Sydney University. His story compelled me to contact Western Sydney to explore ways that IIE’s Southeast Asia Regional Office in Bangkok could partner with them to provide similar opportunities to even more refugee students.
This is why it’s crucial to not only host and support displaced students, but also to raise awareness about it. Doing so may encourage and inform other universities how to get involved, and spark new ideas, solutions, and partnerships. It’s also a way to demonstrate how refugee students contribute to community and collective learning within colleges and universities. The stories of Deng Adut and Naw Bee Bi, an IIE Odyssey Scholarship recipient also from Myanmar, are two great examples of the direct line between awareness and meaningful action. IIE stands ready to leverage our on-the-ground global presence to assist more displaced students around the world.
On World Refugee Day, I hope you’ll consider renewing or starting your refugee student efforts at the institutional level and across the higher education community. If you are not sure of what to do next, please contact the IIE Student Emergency Initiatives team at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would be honored to help.
Jonathan Lembright is the head of IIE Bangkok in Thailand. Founded in 1962, the office manages U.S. Department of State academic mobility initiatives, implements student leadership and scholarship programs, and serves as an expert resource on English language via the TOEFL® Family of Assessments.
For more than 100 years, IIE has been a pioneer in responding to the greatest global emergencies of our times. Today, on World Refugee Day, take action to help forcibly displaced students pursue their dreams and become catalysts for positive change by supporting IIE’s Odyssey Scholarship.