For young people who have been through the refugee process, the transition into university can be a particularly fraught process, for a number of reasons. These may include, for example, challenges associated with the development of language competence, coping with post-traumatic stress disorder and its various manifestations and dealing with significant differences in cultural expectations between family and school.

A longitudinal study conducted by the University of Newcastle, Macquarie University and Curtin University identified a range of challenges students from refugee backgrounds face in the quest to achieve further education. [‘(Re)claiming social capital:  Improving language and cultural pathways for students from refugee backgrounds into Australian higher education’]

Participants expressed strong determination and a drive to ‘work hard/er’ to achieve their educational goals.

As long as you’re willing to work hard, I think you can improve yourself. At the end of the day you’ll end up doing whatever you want to do, but it’s because you’re working hard (High School Student)

I need to do more work. I need to do—I have to work—I should work hard, day and night. (Undergraduate Student)

While the participants’ demonstrated resilience and a strong work ethic, tracking the experiences of these students highlighted a complex web of circumstances connected not only to English language proficiency, culture and education, but also settlement, family, community and belonging which often created barriers to success for students from refugee backgrounds.

Also working hard to support my family is very important. We pay $2000 per month for rent so you have to have some income. I thought I could hear the lectures online but I fell behind. I’m always chasing time.

Time significantly impacted participants in many forms:

  • the imperative to “make up” for lost time (for adult participants)
  • the lack of time to develop appropriate language and academic practices
  • time-limited assessment procedures (which are harder for non-native English speakers)
  • the labour of time needed for linguistic translation in study
  • inflexible scheduling of academic programs and settlement obligations.

What can higher education institutions do, then, to facilitate the ‘success’ of students from refugee backgrounds?

The findings recommend:

  • Face-to-face dedicated engagement with students from refugee backgrounds to enable them to access other support services in the institutions and externally. A dedicated staff member in a higher education institution who can provide face to face, personalised and timely support to students.
  • Raise awareness with teaching and professional staff of the strengths, experiences and challenges that students from refugee backgrounds bring with them to their higher education experience.
  • Targeted orientation activities for students from refugee backgrounds, and possibly a ‘rolling orientation’ to cater for students who are unable to attend a stand-alone orientation activities due to resettlement commitments.

Based on the outcomes from the research, the research project teams developed a set of best practice recommendations, curriculum and resources for program providers who engage with students from refugee backgrounds, including universities, TAFEs and schools – available on the project website:

The study, ‘(Re)claiming social capital: Improving language and cultural pathways for students from refugee backgrounds into Australian higher education’ was funded by the Australian Government’s Office for Learning and Teaching.

Posted by Sonal Singh

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