Syracuse Refugee Series

Refugees face distinct challenges when applying for college

Aline Peres Martins | Staff Writer

Egal Adan, a student at Clarkson University, was born in a Kenyan refugee camp. Former-President Barack Obama intended to raise the number of refugees admitted to college in the United States to 110,00, but under President Donald Trump the number is expected to be cut in half.

When Egal Adan decided to apply to college in the spring of 2016, he faced obstacles in the college application process that his peers did not. Adan was born in a refugee camp in Kenya to Somali parents and moved to the United States when he was 6 years old.

He had to take charge of his college application process. Explaining each step to his parents, who, he said, couldn’t really help.

“My peers, their parents already know about how to apply to college,” Adan said. “My father believed that, ‘If you want to go to a college, they will come look for you.’ He didn’t understand that you have to actually go and look for the colleges yourself. It was hard.”

In 2016, the U.S. admitted 84,995 refugees, according to the Pew Research Center. Because of the current conflict in Syria, The White House National Security Advisor under former- President Barack Obama intended to raise this number to 110,000 in 2017. However, Trump signed an executive order on Jan. 27 cutting the intake goal by more than half— to 50,000—and suspending refugee admissions for 120 days.

Still, in 2016, more than 40 colleges have started providing scholarships specifically for Syrian refugees, according to the Institute for International Education. After Trump signed the executive order, one university, Wheaton College in Massachusetts, started a scholarship for Syrian refugees in protest.

The United Nations reports that fewer than 1 percent of refugees globally are enrolled in higher education.

Adan graduated a year early from Henninger High School, which at the time, had a 55 percent graduation rate. He was admitted into Clarkson University, but the application process was not easy.

“Guidance – they didn’t really guide us,” Adan said. “There should be a translator. It’s especially hard when we don’t know how to speak the language, we don’t know how to ask for help.”

Adan translated every document in the college application process to his parents because there weren’t enough translators available to help him.

When he realized he was not the only one of his classmates at Henninger who felt completely alone in the college application process, Adan started a program called College Expo. His goal was to teach fellow high school students about colleges.

Now, since Adan’s graduation, Joyce Suslovic, a teacher at Henninger High School leads the program.

Suslovic helps arrange transportation to and from college visits, meets with the students to work on application essays and advises them on classes to take and extracurricular activities to get involved with — all in the name of strengthening their applications.

She sees refugee students facing many different issues, but the most challenging is documentation. Many of the students’ parents don’t fully understand the U.S. tax system, said Suslovic, which makes filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid difficult.

Adan said even though it was the last step in the process, it was the most difficult one for him as well.

“Doing the FAFSA, that was the one thing I had to do entirely on my own,” says Adan. “I had to get information that my parents didn’t know. And I didn’t really know how to translate the documents for them because I had never heard of them before.”

There are nonprofits, like On Point For College, that help students navigate the college application process. Their services include college admissions assistance, college tours and financial aid help to first-generation college students, low-income students and others who may need additional help.

Tiffany Rush, director of advancement and completion at On Point For College, says many of the students the Syracuse center helps are refugees or children of refugees. Many of them were in refugee camps before moving to the U.S., or moved from their home countries involuntarily, so they often face problems when trying to obtain documentation verifying their prior education.

Rush said some refugee students have to obtain a GED certificate before beginning the college application process because they can never get documentation stating they already completed high school in another country.

“The paperwork is not all in one place,” Rush said. “The families are often not here in the U.S. and getting paperwork is difficult. It’s not impossible, but it takes much longer.”

The students’ families are often not in the U.S., Rush said, because sometimes only some of the family members are approved for resettlement. So, children will move to the U.S. without their parents or siblings.

Aeme Sagakuru, a current Henninger High School junior from the Congo now beginning the college application process, said she has already faced difficulties in her application process even in the very early stages. In addition to translation issues and documentation issues, she said the college application process also favors people who speak English natively.

“The hardest part is the language,” Sagakuru said. “The way I write something is not going to be the same as the students who are from here. So my essay for college is going to be a disadvantage.”

But Sagakuru is hopeful she will graduate from Henninger and get into college. Her top choice is Syracuse University.

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