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Perspectives: College Dream Can Be Reality For America’s Refugee Citizens

Education is the proven universal passport to a better personal and financial future. Our nation prides itself on providing equal educational opportunities for all. The system isn’t perfect, and no one knows that better than the poor and those outside the mainstream of American life. Like other Americans, refugee and asylum families in this country dream of college for their children, but few find their way to our campuses. We must change that.

Zlatko Mladenovic never dreamed of going to college in America as a child in Bosnia. He left the strife-torn country with his mother and grandmother at the start of the Bosnian conflict in 1992, and when the family finally arrived in the United States after a brief sojourn in Germany, they struggled to make it in their new surroundings, living for a time on welfare checks. But despite their hardships, Mladenovic’s mother had hopes that her son would be the first in the family to attend college.

Today, he is enrolled as a first-year scholarship student at Champlain College. Also enrolled is Maria Thach, the daughter of a South Vietnamese soldier. In her early years, Maria developed an interest in human rights. Now, she is studying criminal justice and plans to work with refugee families to help them understand our laws and justice system. She also hopes her little sister can follow in her footsteps.

When I first visited Burlington, Vt., to interview for my current job, I was struck by the number of refugees in the city. I soon learned that Burlington is one of six “Preferred Communities” for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Burlington is well suited to offer services and opportunities not available or affordable in big cities.

I also saw something else in these new American citizens. I saw a new supply of students eager to learn. When I assumed the presidency at Champlain College, I asked the financial aid office to investigate the feasibility of a scholarship program for these new citizens. What we have created is, we believe, one of the first need-based programs in the nation specifically designed to support refugee and asylum students.

This is the first year for the New American Student Scholarship, and Zlatko and Maria are among 11 beneficiaries. Not only are we helping deserving students with financial needs, but we also are seeing benefits to the campus. Originally from Bosnia, Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of Congo, these students have viewpoints that are different from the perspectives of the American students who make up most of the student body. As a result, we have a richer educational stew that benefits everyone.

 I hear from faculty that our refugee and asylum students are among our most motivated learners in the classroom. Our 11 students have occasional setbacks and problems but, overall, are doing well. We plan to grow the program and we are actively soliciting applications from other refugee and asylum students who now call Vermont home.

 For colleges and universities considering such an outreach program, the most important consideration is inclusiveness. In theory, diversity is an easy concept to get behind, but in practice students who represent minority views often feel ostracized and left out. Calling attention to routine cultural insensitivities must be part of the process. There are always students interested in being inclusive, but often they simply don’t know what to do.  

We knew going into this program that our refugee scholars, who face particular language, cultural and financial barriers and who may be the first in their family to go to college, would need help with the financial aid process, finding things around campus, getting set up with work-study jobs and taking advantage of socializing and networking opportunities. So we hired a person to manage the mentoring process.

What we realized quickly was that our domestic first-year students, having little experience with diversity themselves, also could benefit from our staff mentor’s help in their adjustment to college life. There are no models for this in higher education, so we are learning as we go, but it seems to be working well.

 If our small college can provide this passport to a better future for our newest Vermonters, imagine what colleges and universities across the nation can do. There are dozens of cities large and small that are home to refugee and asylum students. Higher education needs to embrace these new Americans and find ways to open its doors wide to them.


— David F. Finney is the president of Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont.

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