Universities to Welcome Refugees Under New Program


Rasha Faek, Managing Editor, WENR

The Welcome Corps on Campus

The Welcome Corps on Campus, a new private sponsorship initiative kicked off earlier this year, is offering refugee students a soft landing in the U.S.

In recent years, the global refugee crisis has intensified, displacing millions of individuals seeking safety and a chance for a better life. The United States has a long-standing commitment to resettlement and a responsibility to address this issue and provide opportunities for refugees to rebuild their lives. Education plays a vital role in empowering individuals and fostering their integration into new societies. Therefore, the Welcome Corps on Campus is a particularly important program, offering refugee students a soft landing in the U.S.

The newly launched private sponsorship initiative is a part of the broader Welcome Corps program in the U.S. Launched by the U.S. Department of State in January 2023, the Welcome Corps is a private sponsorship program to benefit refugees admitted under the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). The expansion of the Welcome Corps to colleges and universities enables groups of individuals on campus to sponsor refugee students who have been selected by Welcome Corps on Campus to pursue their educational goals while resettling in the U.S. This new program aims to enhance the resettlement experience for refugee students by encouraging the creation of on-campus Private Sponsor Groups (PSGs) to welcome and support refugee students during their first 12 months in the U.S. Among other responsibilities, on-campus PSGs secure housing, greet new arrivals at the airport, enroll refugee students in health and dental insurance, and help them adjust to life on campus and in the classroom.

“With forced displacement reaching alarming levels, among those affected are thousands of university-age refugees who dream of continuing their education. While 40 percent of students worldwide have access to higher education, the figure drops to 6 percent for refugees,” said Basma Alawee, deputy executive director of the Community Sponsorship Hub (CSH).

“This glaring disparity calls for collective action and innovative solutions to ensure that these students have the opportunity they deserve to access education and a pathway to citizenship in the U.S.,” she added.

The initiative not only offers a pathway to higher education but also promotes inclusivity and diversity within academic institutions, Alawee said. While some existing programs, such as scholarships and grants, also support refugee students’ access to education, “this initiative takes a more comprehensive approach by actively involving colleges and universities in the resettlement process. It aims to create a sustainable model that fosters long-term integration and success for refugee students in the U.S.”

A Holistic Action Plan

Refugee advocates have greeted the program with enthusiasm. Following the launch of the program, more than 145 organizations, from higher education institutions to refugee resettlement and rights groups, issued a statement in support of the program (editor’s note: World Education Services (WES) was among the letter’s signatories).

“What I’m really very excited about is that we have thousands of institutions, colleges, and universities in the U.S., across all our states, that can be welcoming campuses for refugee students. What we have now is a groundbreaking, historic opportunity to put it together, to have access to refugee resettlement and a clear pathway to education,” said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the President’s Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.

Feldblum views the program as a kind of “community builder right on campus. It’s an opportunity to bring a campus together and connect with the local community. It’s a life-changing opportunity, and this is something that colleges and universities are very keen on. University sponsorship provides refugee students with a path to permanent residency in the U.S., and it’s also transformative for the campus itself. Those are just a few of the reasons not only why this should be compelling for campuses, but also why to join now.”

The initial selected group of students will be refugees from Kenya and Jordan. This first cohort must also be registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), possess a level of proficiency in English, and be between ages 18 and 24. On the university side, participating institutions are committing to enroll one to three refugee students at their campuses starting in September 2024. Although still a year away, welcoming preparations have already started.

“The beautiful story about this program is creating community,” confirmed CSH deputy executive director Alawee. “We put together a full detailed toolkit to guide institutions on how to establish a Campus Private Sponsor Group that can be made up of faculty, staff, and student volunteers,” who for 12 months “will play a key role in helping new students navigate the U.S. higher education system, enroll in classes, and participate in campus life while they pursue their education.”

Training and implementation handbooks will be provided as well, to make sure that PSGs are able to operate smoothly and efficiently, said Diya Abdo, founder and director of Every Campus A Refuge (ECAR). “We’re developing the reporting mechanisms, and we’re going to be there to support the PSGs on that 12-month journey with one-on-one support as well as [a] community of practice support where PSGs from different campuses can come together to learn from each other’s experience.”

Abdo established ECAR in 2015 as an organization dedicated to promoting the housing of refugee families on college and university campuses and providing assistance in their resettlement. The original ECAR chapter, at Guilford College in North Carolina, has since been joined in this effort by chapters on several other campuses. To date, the Guilford College chapter alone has accommodated 86 refugees, including 16 individuals who were evacuated from Afghanistan. (Read more: Every Campus A Refuge: When University Becomes a Home.)

“For us, this new program is a natural extension or addition to what ECAR does to build the capacity of universities to support refugees in different ways,” Abdo added. “We are still very committed and will continue to double down on our effort to get universities to support refugees whether they are students or not.”

Mary Karam McKey, the head of Global Corporate and Foundation Initiatives for the International Institute of Education (IIE), believes supporting this initiative is an opportunity for U.S. campuses to continue to demonstrate global citizenship as part of the university experience.

“The capacity of the U.S. university system is unparalleled and, like our nation, has a long history of welcoming and supporting refugees and vulnerable populations,” she wrote in an email. “Participating in Welcome Corps on Campus will not only provide refugees access to education who are qualified and ready to enroll in university, it will also enhance campuses and communities with knowledge and diverse perspectives.”

Pitfalls and Concerns

While advocates acknowledge the significance of this pioneering initiative, many are concerned about the limited duration of the support it provides, which spans only one year. For many, this raises significant questions regarding the long-term prospects and continued support for refugee students once the designated period ends.

“While the program’s duration may be limited, it is essential to emphasize the long-term benefits and opportunities it presents,” said Colleen Thouez, founder and director of the Refugee Resettlement Initiative for the National Association of System Heads (NASH). “The initiative enables refugee students to access higher education, which will significantly enhance their knowledge. It will serve as a strong foundation for their future endeavors, making them more competitive in the job market and increasing their chances of securing stable employment.” The program will also provide networking opportunities and connections with professionals in various fields, which will open doors for further educational or career advancements beyond the one-year time frame. “It is crucial for students to understand that this initiative is not just a short-term solution but a stepping stone toward a brighter and more secure future,” Thouez said.

Nele Feldmann, associate director for the Welcome Corps on Campus at the Community Sponsorship Hub, agrees the period of support is not long enough. But on-campus PSGs are required to submit a post-sponsorship plan as part of their application, indicating any ongoing financial and social integration support that may be available after the initial 12 months. And only students viewed by program leaders as having the requisite resources to complete their studies will be approved for sponsorship. “The program is an intersection between resettlement and higher education, which is very important, as sponsored students will be required to apply for legal permanent residency after one year and [if approved would then] have the right to stay in the U.S. after finishing their studies,” Feldmann said. “They will be eligible for federal financial aid and can work, if desired. They are on track to build their lives in the United States and the starting point is the university gate.”

Ensuring the continuity and sustainability of the program is a prerequisite for success, said Christine Mylks, manager of overseas programming for the non-profit World University Service of Canada. “Our challenge is how do we make sure that this program is sustainable, that it continues, and that it spreads across the U.S.”

Mylks acknowledges students’ concerns about their ability to continue their studies after the one-year period is up, but she seems optimistic, as Canada already has a similar and very successful program.

“It’s such an important program for the U.S. in particular because of how important education is and how strong the educational institutions are in the U.S.,” she said. “It is a beacon of hope for so many young people to hold on to their dreams and their passions. Thousands of amazingly brilliant refugee students deserve the right to be in a classroom and to have a durable solution through resettlement and there are many people, on the other side, who want to build a bridge to help these young people find their way toward their future path.”


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