Champlain College Helps Refugees Start New Lives Without Tuition Fees

BURLINGTON Vermont

When his family landed in Vermont three years ago, Rwandan refugee Jean-Luc Dushime didn’t speak English. Now, he’s in college on a full scholarship, and hopes to attend graduate school.

The credit, he said, goes to Champlain College, a private school with about 1,940 undergraduates. President David Finney was inspired by a documentary about refugees to established a scholarship program that helps them avoid the $24,000 annual tuition.

“Champlain College was the only school that gave me a full scholarship and was the only school interested to know me as a person,” the 27-year-old sophomore said.

The documentary, “Rain in a Dry Land,” is about refugees who flee to the U.S.

“Given what they faced when they arrived, which is basically about eight months of support and a handshake … I thought that Champlain could play a role,” Finney said.

Champlain is believed to be the nation’s only college program aimed specifically at refugees, said Roland King, vice president for public affairs at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Other scholarships are available to refugees through foundations, and a Georgetown University scholarship program is to open to students from conflicted areas whether or not they are refugees.

In 2006, the first year, Champlain’s New American Student Scholarship program helped 13 students. Now, about 16 students from Vietnam, Bosnia and Sudan, among other places receive scholarships based on need.

The students have needs the school probably should have anticipated, but didn’t, Finney said.

Champlain will likely add language support for some students and has established an Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion to counsel them. Its director, Angela Batista, said she spends a lot of time talking with students about their struggles.

The small private college benefits from refugees’ diverse and enriching experiences, Finney said.

Dushime’s family fled the Rwandan genocide in 1994. As a teenager, he, his mother and his three siblings traveled 4,000 miles across the Congo over six months to escape. They lived for eight months on a river island with other refugees, facing starvation and disease, before fleeing on a boat to Brazzaville, the Congo’s capital. With help from a French priest, Dushime was able to go to back to school, but he felt out of place.

“I feel I didn’t belong there, when you go through stuff like that. … I was damaged,” he said. “When you’re young and you see evil, you don’t dream like other children. There’s nothing positive going into your life.”

He attended school in Africa and earned a college degree in journalism. He speaks four languages.

But he said the violence and discrimination against the refugees kept him from thinking much about his future. He just longed for peace.

“I wanted a place where I can be stable, because all those years I was moving around, I never think about the future, because there’s nothing to think about,” he said. “You don’t know if you’re going to wake up in the morning.”

Now, he snowboards and goes mountain biking. He’s studying public relations and plans to go to graduate school. He also hopes to study abroad in New Zealand next year.

Language is still a struggle. He takes longer to write papers and read books and gets frustrated that he can’t express himself in English as well as he does in French. But he said that three years ago, he couldn’t even ask for directions.

Now, he helps other Africans in the community, encouraging them to take part in their new culture and to get an education.

“It’s a good thing for us to have an education,” he said of himself and his older brother, also a Champlain student.

Maria Thach, who came to Vermont from Vietnam at age 4, also is the first in her family to go to college. Even though she’s lived in Vermont most of her life, the Burlington High School graduate said she bonded with the other refugee students at Champlain.

“We face stereotypes and issues in our daily lives that are similar. We got to know each other pretty well as individuals, and learning from different cultures is key,” said Thach, who is studying criminal justice.

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