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A Refugee-led Initiative and Effective Practice in Improving College Access for Displaced Students

Syrian Youth Empowerment (SYE Initiative, Inc.) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that empowers youth in conflict zones by providing a path to higher education. Founded and led by Syrian refugees who experienced first-hand the challenges associated with continuing higher education both inside and outside of Syria, the SYE team is deeply aware of these challenges as well as the significant impact of higher education in allowing these students to realize their full potential. 

After being given an opportunity to pursue degrees at Illinois Institute of Technology through a collaboration between IIE and Jusoor, SYE’s founders were seeking a way to scale the impact and support even more students from Syria, their home country. When they were  able to raise only $2000 to support their cause, they abandoned the idea of creating new scholarships and instead built a mentorship program to help vulnerable populations like their own access existing need-based and merit aid. In the first 4 years, SYE worked exclusively with students from Syria, and in the fifth year (the Class of 2020-2021) piloted a program with Iraqi undergraduate applicants and Syrian Master’s applicants.

Bolstering Access to Higher Education

Due to political, social, and economic instability, students from conflict zones are often deprived of the opportunity to access quality higher education, regardless of their intellect and academic potential. SYE is committed to addressing this crisis through a formal college access program which consists of:

  • A curriculum, with the fundamentals of the college application process localized and available using accessible technology 
  • Financial support and waivers to overcome the unaffordability of application and testing fees, such as the SAT, TOEFL, and Duolingo English Test
  • Advocacy to universities

and, most importantly, mentorship to encourage students and guide them through the essay, college selection, and visa processes.

SYE currently runs three programs:

  • The One Year Program to support students actively applying for undergraduate institutions.
  • The Grad Program for students actively applying for graduate institutions.
  • The Prep Program, a college readiness program to provide younger, high need students with the skills and tools to be successful through the formal application processes and in a university.

How Can Universities Support SYE’s Work? 

Over the past few years, SYE has built connections with admissions officers and programs around the world to help more effectively guide students. If your institution is interested in supporting the higher education of Syrian and Iraqi students in conflict areas and refugees by way of creating a scholarship or by sharing information  about existing opportunities, please reach out to info@sye-initiative.org. SYE also  encourages admissions officers to reach out to host virtual information sessions and to ask questions about academic readiness or qualifications of students within the region that SYE supports. 

Outcomes and Success Stories 

SYE students have successfully gained admissions, with full scholarships and/or financial aid to bachelors programs, at institutions such as Harvard University, Princeton University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Dartmouth College, Cornell University, Amherst College, Brown University, New York University Abu Dhabi, University of British Columbia, University of Toronto, Rice University, University of Rochester, and Smith College, among many others. SYE students typically receive over USD 10 million in scholarships and aid per year. 

While almost all of our successful students return to mentor with SYE, the organization has also seen our first class graduate and go on to incredible careers or fellowships, including two receiving full funding to continue their studies at Cambridge in the U.K. 

Future Growth 

While we are grateful for the opportunities available to our students, we are constantly aware of the limitations in funding conflict-impacted students face, as well as the challenges presented by the application process itself. We hope to see the creation of more merit-based scholarships and need-based funding to support students like ours in future years. The challenges faced by our students are universally faced by students in conflict zones and we hope to see more universities creating scholarships for these vulnerable populations. 

We’d also like to see the cost of the application process drastically reduced in the coming years as the entire application process can cost our students an entire year’s salary, making it infeasible for those who need it most. 

As for SYE, we look forward to growing our university connections, opening and publicizing new opportunities, and continuing to advocate for our students on campuses around the world.