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Reflections: What motivates refugee students to pursue higher education?

by Maryam Y. Ali | Mar 28, 2019
maryam photoWhat follows is personal testimony from Maryam Y. Ali, a refugee from Somalia ​and a master's student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at UW-Madison.

Maryam will be serving as a panelist for ​​WISCAPE's panel discussion, Supporting Refugee Students in Higher Education, on Friday, March 29, at noon. Don't miss it!

My name is Maryam Ali, and I was born and raised in Somalia. My family and I left Somalia during my last year of middle school, due to security reasons. After half a year of moving from place to place searching for a place to settle, we finally settled in Egypt. My family and I came to Egypt in order to escape from a war-torn country that was also my beloved home, Somalia. One of my mother’s first priorities was to get us to a safe place that had affordable education. Finding and attending school in Egypt was not easy because of our refugee status. The process of obtaining proper paper documents that would allow us to attend public school took months. When we were finally able to enroll in school, I quickly learned that Egyptian schools did not offer resources to assist refugee students. Instead, my siblings and I were pressured to adjust to the new culture, language, and environment.

In 2010, my family and I relocated to the U.S. as refugees. After living in Egypt for four years, I was now a senior in high school. My family and I moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin, where we again settled as refugees. As for the status of my education, fortunately I was able to complete my education in Green Bay within the American school system. Within two months, my younger siblings and I were sent to school. Before we started our classes, we had to take exams. I remember vividly, we were in a room together, when we were administered the tests. They gave us the same papers, said “read this, and answer the questions.” I looked at the papers and tried to understand at least one sentence.

As I was looking at the exam, the memory of my lived experience of having to choose one international language kept playing in my head. During my time in the Egyptian school system, all the students were required to take one course of international language; I chose to take French, which led me to study the French language for two years. Gazing at the test administered in Green Bay, I became angry and regretted taking the French course, instead of English. I remember saying to myself: “If you would have taken the English language, instead of French, you would at least be able to read and understand this exam today.” Looking back on this day, I realize it is too late for regrets.

After blankly staring at the exam and failing to know the answers, I made the decision to guess the answers for the questions that were multiple-choice, and I left blank the questions that required written answers. Shortly after taking the exam, I learned that I was going to be placed in an English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom. One thing that surprised me about our placements was that everyone was placed in the grade level that corresponded with their age, regardless of English ability. At this time, I was 18 years old, so I was granted senior status. However, I didn't graduate until three semesters later.

In 2012, upon graduating high school and having a dream to pursue college, my family and I moved to Madison so that I could attend Madison Area Technical College (MATC). In 2016, I graduated from the Liberal Arts Program at MATC and then went on to attend Edgewood College, earning a bachelor’s degree in Education. Now I am pursing a master’s degree in the Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis department at UW-Madison.

The mini stories shared above only paint a brief picture of what my lived experienced as a refugee has entailed. In the future, I hope to share my stories in a book, with particular emphasis on language acquisition. Nonetheless, I am glad that life has given me these opportunities, which have strengthened me into the person I am today. 

Having introduced myself, I would now like to share what motivated me to pursue education in the American school system, given my identity as a refugee student. There are many reasons why refugees may be inspired to seek higher education. Drawing on my personal experience, I will mention three factors.

Initially, it is very important to acknowledge that even though refugees are fleeing from their homes due to various forms of instability, they are also coming to this country with dreams and aspirations they’ve have had since they were young. To give an example, my understanding of the United States was as a ‘land of opportunity’ -- this made me and my family immediately wish to avail of these now accessible opportunities. As demonstrated above, upon my arrival to the U.S., I immediately began searching to make these dreams a reality. These dreams that are carried by many​ -- if not most​ -- refugees include the pursuit of an education and having a professional career. Similar to me, many refugees have aspirations of becoming doctors, engineers, teachers, lawyers, and other types of professionals.

Another common reason why refugees seek higher education is the desire to acquire a greater source of income, which will provide a good living for themselves and their family. Not limited to my community, obtaining a well-paying job most often requires a college degree. In addition to many other factors, being able to become financially stable and live comfortably is a shared reason for why refugees​ -- as well as most individuals -- seek a higher education.

The final and most overlooked reason as for why refugees may seek higher education opportunities is based on their intention of returning to their homeland and ‘giving back.’ This is based on the hope that knowledge acquired in the U.S. will provide them with tools and knowledge for improving conditions at home. Areas in which refugee students similar to myself might be particularly interested in giving back include local and national security, health care, education, the economy, and most importantly, the pursuit of human rights.

With knowledge of some of the factors that motivate refugee students to pursue higher education, it is imperative that colleges and universities are equipped with the proper tools to help them succeed. Therefore, I highly recommend that administrators, faculty members, and staff such as advisors and mentors inform refugee students about resources that are available to them. Furthermore, my recommendation is that college faculty and staff to promote student engagement in their schools. In my personal experience, being engaged in extracurricular activities has provided a greater sense of belonging during my time in college. As American higher education institutions admit an ever-increasing number of immigrant and refugee students, there is great value in rethinking how the social and cultural climate of higher education can shift to ensure a welcoming, engaging, supportive environment for all learners.                       

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