SEATTLE — Four years ago, Amy Wylie, a longtime community volunteer assisting and advocating for the refugee population in Utah, was approached by a local businessman, Roger Boyer, about creating a program through his foundation to fill a noticeable gap in the services provided to the refugee community.
Much of the services, time and energy provided by the state was going toward refugee families in crisis. However, there were many children and adults that were moving forward to with their lives that also needed assistance.
Out of their collaboration, the nonprofit Refugee Education Initiative was created to help refugees striving to earn degrees go to college and accomplish their career goals. Now, in partnership with the University of Utah and Salt Lake City Community College, the organization provides coverage of tuition fees, as well as other educational costs including textbooks, tutoring, citizenship fees and even prescription eyeglasses.
“We found that many [students]didn’t have computers,” Wylie said, now executive director of the program. “They had been going to school without even buying books, so they were using the library computers and the books in the library. And yet they were still succeeding and accomplishing their goals, but they were doing it, just barely hanging on.”
Within the first semester alone, the Refugee Education Initiative enrolled 80 students, looking holistically at their needs and helping them overcome barriers. Students who apply for the program are required to be high school graduates, accepted to the university and be college English ready.
The program offers pathways through a community college or English classes for those who do not reach the language level necessary.
“Out of our 600 applications this year, there were many that did not make the English 10/10,” Wylie said. “So, for that group, we work with them to get a year or so of pre-college English. A majority of our students started in pre-college English. They worked hard, got through that, made it into college English, and are succeeding.”
The Refugee Education Initiative is not like a traditional scholarship in the sense that if students fall below the minimum 2.5 GPA, they are not dropped from the program but put on probation.
“With refugees, there’s a lot of trauma from their past, they carry a lot of responsibility on helping to provide for their family, and they have relatives that are still in their countries that they send amounts of money to, so they carry an incredible burden,” said Wylie. “So, if they might need to leave school for a period, they know that their file is put on hold. We don’t ever permanently exit a student. If within a couple of semesters, they can get things back on track, we are here to help them.”
The program holds every student accountable for their success throughout their education. Advisers aren’t accessed remotely but meet with students face-to-face.
“There’s that hope that they believe ‘I can do this’,” Wylie said. “There a sense of connection to our program because we are there as advisers and not just there to write a check. That they know there’s going to be a person that checks their grades every semester and they are going to meet with them and talk to them.”
After four years of the Refugee Education Initiative, the refugee community, and the community at large in Utah, saw positive impacts of refugee students going through higher education programs and earning degrees. The students provide a sense of hope to incoming and young refugees that they will be able to receive help and go to a university as well.
“We have students graduating, who are all working in our local hospitals with their incredible gift of multiple languages,” Wylie said. “The benefits to the industries they are going in highly educated now, bringing their great diversity. To have a refugee become a social worker is incredible because they now have the skills to help our community rise above some of those challenges that they themselves faced.”
The students role models in the community. The program creates productive members of society who benefit everyone by working, paying taxes and becoming consumers. An increase in highly educated citizens benefits many aspects of the state.
The program has a total of 162 current students, 300 students in circulation, 95 graduates and 22 countries represented. In the end, Wylie said, the strength of the Refugee Education Initiative is the students and their stories.
– Riley Bunch