Welcoming Refugees in Community Colleges

Blog Post
Group of college students
Nov. 20, 2023

The refugee crisis worldwide is continuing to grow, reaching an unprecedented 35.3 million people by the end of 2022. Becoming a refugee and being resettled in a new country is often long and challenging. When adult refugees go through the resettlement process in the United States, they are expected to start working as soon as possible–within 60 to 90 days–to gain economic self-sufficiency. Many factors influence the type of job newly arrived refugees can obtain including English language ability and if they have a postsecondary credential.

While English classes are typically provided as part of the resettlement process, occupational vocabulary takes time to master, and quickly building English skills for work and daily life presents a common challenge in securing initial employment or building on existing skills. While building language skills may be difficult to address quickly, evaluating existing credentials and experience is something institutions of postsecondary education already do. However, the credit for prior learning process is often not set up with immigrants and refugees in mind. As a result, even refugees who arrive with high levels of English and college degrees or years of experience abroad may not be able to use this experience toward employment in the United States.

In my (Colleen) dissertation study on the experiences of adult refugees attending technical colleges in Wisconsin, six of 20 participants arrived in the United States with a postsecondary credential. All six expected to work in a similar field, but only one was able to use his degree, becoming a translator at the organization that helped resettle his family.

The other five students’ experiences were more like Omar’s. Omar is a first-generation student from the Gambia who resettled in the United States alone. Before leaving his home country, he earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting and worked for years as an accountant and in non-profit organizations. Omar also already spoke English, so he expected to find a job in his field with relative ease. Unfortunately, that was not the case. So, Omar contacted universities and colleges around the country, searching for one that would validate his credential or offer him credit for prior learning. Still, he could only find one: an institution in New York that would only accept some of his credit. As Omar put it, “...that was a big setback for me actually. You know, knowing that I get the college degree and I cannot transfer my credit here. And then I understand a lot of people face the same issue. It means like starting everything from zero again.”

It turned out that the best deal for Omar would be to start over at a technical college in Wisconsin. So, off he went to the Badger State. He initially chose Wisconsin because he knew people living in the area who told him he could afford to live a comfortable life and access quality education at a technical college that would transfer to a university.

Although he was not able to validate his prior degree or experience, and he didn’t find a support system set up specifically for refugees or immigrants, he was able to find a supportive “family-like” environment by participating in a TRiO program where he was able to access financial and academic support and the African Student Association where he connected with other students that were in similar positions to himself.

Omar advocated for the college to make changes to meet his needs. The college was responsive to his advocacy and as a result, has worked to better engage prospective students from Africa and is currently working to understand and improve evaluation processes for students who earned credit or degrees abroad.

Omar not only graduated with his associate degree, transferred to a university, and obtained his bachelor’s degree (again), but also became a key ambassador in the community for other refugees and immigrants looking for paths to college. Omar has persisted despite numerous barriers and achieved his goal. The technical college provided an affordable pathway for him to earn additional degrees in a welcoming community with a relatively low cost of living.

However, not all stories of internationally trained immigrants and refugees end positively. In fact, many cases result in “brain waste” that leaves professionals trained abroad (especially those who are women, English Language Learners, Black, or Latino) unemployed or underemployed.

After the decimation of refugee admissions during the Trump administration, the US is working to rebuild our long history of welcoming refugees. As people from countries near and far flee violence and persecution, we can welcome and support more refugees in our communities and our workforce development system. We have jobs open, community and technical colleges to facilitate occupationally-focused English and job training, and communities all across the country ready to welcome them.

Given the great need to welcome more refugees and support their resettlement, we offer a few recommendations for institutions of higher education and policymakers to better meet this need:

  • States can include leaders from community colleges and the state higher education and workforce development agencies in refugee resettlement strategies and consideration of resource allocation. Involving community colleges and postsecondary education writ large in these conversations may facilitate newly arrived refugees’ economic and occupational security as they integrate into the local community.
  • The federal government and state governments can consider community colleges core partners in longer-term resettlement support after refugees’ initial three months in the US and provide resources accordingly. Ensuring community colleges have the training and capacity to engage refugees and support them well through education and holistic student services could take the form of considering refugees and asylees as populations of focus in federal grant programs in the vein of the Obama-era TAACCCT program.
  • Colleges can consider ways to remove barriers in credit for prior learning processes to make them accessible for internationally trained professionals and provide transition services from English language courses to career programs that include holistic supports. These supports can be delivered by immigrant and refugee community navigators who are knowledgeable about legal, education, and workforce processes as well as resources, benefits, and regulations relevant to refugee populations. Or better yet, hire refugee alumni themselves to serve in these positions.
  • Additionally, colleges can participate in national programs like the U.S. State Department’s Welcome Corps on Campus initiative and private nonprofit organizations like Every Campus a Refuge.
Related Topics
Higher Education Access and Affordability