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Higher Education and the Economic Integration of Refugees

A large group of students wearing caps and gowns at commencement.

Co-Authored by Nina Weaver 
Originally published on Inside Higher Ed

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) is pioneering an innovative program to deliver more than a high-quality university education to some of the world’s most disadvantaged learners. Our refugee education programs enable refugees around the world to earn US-accredited bachelor’s degrees, as part of a strategy to help navigate the challenges that refugees face by being displaced. Building on our pilot program with Kepler in the Kiziba refugee camp, we are expanding our programs to locations in Lebanon, Kenya, Malawi, and South Africa.

This kind of program is made possible by technological advances as well as innovation in US higher education, such as Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America and its project-based degree program. Students at the Rwanda pilot site will graduate with degrees this year, having (also) participated in internships to acquire 21st century skills and professional competencies. Higher education has the potential to equip refugees to be competitive in national, regional, and global job markets, providing qualifications for high-level skills and offering pathways out of displacement.

Yet as students graduate with their degrees and enter the workforce, they face challenges that most graduates residing in their home country cannot imagine. Legal barriers often prevent refugees from being legally employed in the country where they reside. Although many refugees may pursue economic opportunities by working “illegally”, these policies result in forced unemployment or a legal risk for both refugees and their employers.

In response, SNHU’s refugee programs recognize that support for refugees extends beyond the academic realm and must include advocacy in complex environments as well as helping to demonstrate that refugees can perform as well as local residents. To that end, we are broadening alternative employment pathways for refugee students through remote and digital internships and employment opportunities that connect highly-skilled refugee graduates with international employers with an interest in “impact sourcing”. Students that graduate from degree programs such as SNHU’s College for America program — a project-based, market-aligned curriculum emphasizing 21st century technical and soft- skills—are ideally positioned to engage in the rapidly developing sector of remote-based digital work. SNHU engages directly with employers, governments, and organizations, leveraging connections and social capital in the way a caring parent advocates for their child’s future.

In the Kiziba refugee camp, Eugenie Manirafasha completed a marketing internship with an online fashion company based in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, while pursuing her bachelor’s degree. As Eugenie explains, “Before getting the opportunity to pursue higher education, I was not sure about my future. However, [this program] has given me the key to my future in the job market.” Eugenie found the internship was a valuable opportunity to gain work experience and improve her technical skill sets, writing blog posts and conducting local market research for the company, an experience which has furthered her ambitions of a career in marketing.

Of course, refugees can achieve academic excellence and show potential as emerging leaders, but their ambiguous legal status can still hold them back. A Southern New Hampshire University graduate, Sadiki Bamperineza, was recently selected as a WISE Learners’ Voice fellow and invited to attend the annual summit in Doha, Qatar. After receiving his invitation and securing a visa to Qatar, he attempted to travel on his UN refugee passport to the event, only to be turned back at immigration and flown back to Rwanda. Sadiki’s academic accomplishments alone were not sufficient to overcome the challenge of crossing international borders as a refugee. Sadiki did make it to Doha eventually, but not without the aggressive intervention of SNHU’s partner Kepler in Rwanda and the WISE team in Qatar.

The global refugee crisis is complex and requires concerted political, economic, social, and legal action in order to be addressed effectively. Education alone cannot solve the many challenges or overcome the barriers that students will continue to confront. But a high-quality higher education can give refugee students the resources, skills, and networks that they can leverage to succeed, in spite of these challenges. Institutions such as SNHU, in collaboration with NGOs like Kepler, that choose to move beyond the mere provision of education to also focus on actively cultivating social capital for refugees—through access to internships, employment networks, and feedback for continuing employment—will likely find that students reach higher levels of social integration, even in the face of discrimination that refugees must overcome.  As Sadiki explains, “Before joining the program I was not able to predict what will come at the end of [my] “refugeehood”. However, now I am able to develop a five-year plan for my life. I am sure that I will be able to find the way to live independently after graduating. I will be able to run a business or to get hired by a company since I have the needed skills. This is the reason why I can argue that education and a support network hold the solution to the problems that refugees are facing.”

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