Clearing the Path to Educational Empowerment for Refugees

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By Katie Houser

As a recent graduate from the University of Utah, I’ve experienced firsthand how empowering receiving a diploma is. A small, 11x14” piece of paper represents four years of learning about topics you didn’t know existed, building lasting connections with professors and peers, and an unbelievable amount of hard work. The same small piece of paper also represents overcoming the hurdles that come hand-in-hand with higher education: rising tuition costs, student debt, and an increasingly competitive environment.

In addition to these challenges, students with refugee backgrounds arguably have more obstacles to tackle when it comes to attending college, including language barriers, culture shock, and traumatic pasts. But thanks to Roger Boyer, the underwriter of One Refugee (formerly known as the Refugee Education Initiative), student refugees have the opportunity to experience the empowerment gained from a diploma.

The graphic below shows the path that One Refugee aims to help refugee students along with their three initiatives—the first focuses on education, and the second on employment. One Refugee provides support to students to finish school from enrollment counseling and tuition aid, to computers and books. Since the initiative began in 2014, 95 refugees have acquired bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and education certificates, and the program has received national attention for its success (see One Refugee's feature on CNN: Utah nonprofit helps hundreds of refugees go to college).

The One Refugee's third initiative, focusing on ESL, is where Sorenson Impact plays a role. One Refugee's Executive Directors shared an interesting trend with us: refugee students are applying for One Refugee support with impressively high GPAs, but shockingly low ACT and ACCUPLACER scores. To put this into context, One Refugee only supports students who have been accepted into a college or university as full-time students and are eligible for English and Math 1010, which is determined by ACT or Salt Lake Community College’s ACCUPLACER test scores. This past application cycle, roughly 30 students were not able to receive One Refugee support because of their low test scores.

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The One Refugee team presented an innovative solution to help this year’s ineligible students and future applicants: intensive ESL courses to prepare refugee students for standardized testing and academic English. If you remember taking the ACT or the ACCUPLACER, the tests aren’t simple—even if English is your first language. The wording is confusing, there’s never enough time to finish sections, and test fatigue hits at the worst times. By preparing refugee students with standardized testing tips and teaching the English that is seen in test sections and college courses, the chances of higher test scores increase, which in turn, means more students going to college through One Refugee.

There was an obvious opportunity for partnership when we met with the One Refugee team, who wanted to ensure the ESL courses were actually effective. Like any Pay For Success or social impact project I’ve taken part in at Sorenson Impact, questions arose to which our team began solidifying answers. We determined the concrete goals of the ESL courses: academic readiness (meaning getting students familiar with academic English) and higher ACCUPLACER scores. We also examined how we could use student work to determine progress towards those goals. Lastly, we wanted to know if anyone else in the country was or has done anything similar. We quickly found that One Refugee is leading the field in targeted ESL courses for high school-aged refugee students, making research much more difficult.

Our research was executed by a team of Sorenson Impact Fellows—university students working on a variety of government and nonprofit consulting projects at the Center. I was fortunate to have the help of Impact Fellows Jayla Lundstrom, Gabe Moreno, and Lupway Doh, who is also the benefactor of a One Refugee scholarship. We intersected evidence-based practices with refugee education and general ESL education to:

  • Develop an alternative student portfolio assessment technique to supplement simply evaluating students with standardized testing
  • Build a comprehensive pre- and post-course survey to gather student demographic data points

  • Suggest future course developments, such as a collaborative mentorship and tutoring program

Implementing best practices is always easier on paper, especially when the intervention is so new; however, our research shows the value of these practices and the One Refugee team has begun to incorporate them into the ESL courses.

Two courses, held by the Utah International Charter School and the Salt Lake School District, began in late June and are working with refugee students who have not yet applied to the One Refugee program—all in hopes that their test scores will be high enough for a future scholarship. The third course, held by a private organization, began in mid-July and is working with the students who were initially not eligible for One Refugee support this past application cycle. The team of Impact Fellows and I helped administer the pre-course and post-course survey, and are analyzing the data, hopefully to show measurable impact.

The Center also partnered with One Refugee to work with student career development through bringing on One Refugee students to our team and hosting résumé and interview workshops. Sorenson Fellow Lupway Doh experienced One Refugee's impact firsthand, which is part of the reason our research felt so meaningful. He said of the program:

One Refugee is a program that is helping their students, someone like myself, with more than just providing education supports. They are providing the resources necessary for us, so that we can be successful in life. Being a part of this team has given me the opportunity to see and appreciate them more than I already have, all the trouble and hard work they have put in so that someone like me can have an education.

I’ve helped with numerous PFS and social impact projects since I’ve been at the Sorenson Impact Center, but working on the ground with One Refugee has shown me how much tangible impact the social interventions that we help develop actually have. You can read about programs from afar, but until you hear a story about a refugee student’s education or see the ESL course being taught, you can only imagine the importance of sustainable social change and innovation. I look forward to watching One Refugee's impact grow with their ESL courses.