By Emmanuelle Dyer-Melhado, Outreach Chair for the Welcoming Campus Initiative at George Washington University
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2022 only 5% of people with refugee status had access to higher education in comparison to almost 40% of people globally. This statistic does not count the millions of people that are
internally displaced, that seek asylum status, or that simply aren’t fortunate enough to have the formality of refugee status. As such, it can be estimated that the lack of access to higher education by all conflict-impacted students, independent
of legal status, is far less than 5%.
Nelson Mandela said, “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” Conflict-impacted students are being deprived of this opportunity, but also the immediate ability to improve their lives, that of their families,
and their communities. Consequently, the world loses the vast potential intellectual, economic, and social output that conflict-impacted students can produce.
With this, higher education institutions have the unique opportunity to be the solution. They can admit, support, and promote conflict-impacted students. However, their self-inflicted barriers prevent them from doing so. The admissions process is one
of the areas where this is most prominent.
In AACRAO’s 2019 report, Inclusive Admission Policies for Displaced and Vulnerable Students, some of the most common barriers to access are emphasized. For example, credential evaluation can be problematic as conflict-impacted students must often
flee their “countries without the required documentation,” and unfortunately, higher education institutions “in the United States do not have a consistent qualifications evaluation policy for refugees, asylum-seekers, and international
students without proper documentation.” In addition, the report highlights how the structural barriers created by the bureaucratic education system can negatively impact the students through the decisions being made “including the application
process, credential evaluations and transfers, and the education culture, to name a few.”
Illustrating Change at GWU
At George Washington University, the student-led Welcoming Campus Initiative — which is directly supported by No Lost Generation GW, a student-led organization that focuses on refugee advocacy — seeks to alleviate the different barriers that
conflict-impacted students face. The Welcoming Campus Initiative is a holistic approach to sponsoring domestic and international refugee students on the George Washington University (GWU) campus through a scholarship and mentorship program. It would
cover tuition, housing, meals, health insurance, class materials, and travel expenses for recipient students. Furthermore, GWU seeks to advance the flexible admissions process by encouraging the acceptance of alternative transcripts as a policy, the
addition of a conflict-impacted student section to the admissions website, and the opportunity to have workshops with our professional partners to advance knowledge on inclusive admission’s practices, to name a few.
There are many organizations that provide concrete models, reports, toolkits, and the support necessary to implement an accessible campus for conflict-impacted students. Some of these organizations include:
Higher education institutions have the opportunity and the value system in place that positions them to support at-risk students and scholars and to break down barriers while implementing pathways for diversity, equity, and inclusion. This effort by each higher education institution in the United States will reinforce our place as the destination most desired by students and scholars around the world. Not an easy task, but one that is worth pursuing.