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Refugee students and alumni in the U.S. share their experience and perspective.

Current and former students from refugee backgrounds face a number of obstacles accessing higher education in the U.S. Here we share their experiences, their perspectives on a proposed university sponsorship initiative , and celebrate their contributions to U.S. campuses and communities.

Originally from South Sudan, James and his family fled the country’s civil war and moved to Kenya. Currently, he is pursuing his masters at the School of International and Public Affairs Candidate at Columbia University (SIPA). Below he shares about his experience accessing higher education in the U.S.

A Complex & Costly Application System

After completing my application and an online interview, I was required to pay my application fee and upload a GRE test score, which I did not have due to financial difficulties at the time. In Kenya, a GRE test costs $400 on average, plus the $85 application fee which was tough for me. In general, raising cash for the English proficiency test and application fee required by most graduate programs in the U.S. is difficult for refugees. I was fortunate to get my GRE waived after submitting a letter of support from my previous university’s dean, and I contacted the admissions office and requested an application fee waiver. Students from the Global South find it challenging to write essays that would fulfill the high standards set by most North American universities. I completed my application to Columbia University on my own and was admitted to SIPA with a fellowship, but I still had to seek external support with proofreading and revisions on my application for the scholarship. I was awarded full funding through the prestigious CU Displaced Students Scholarship on March 3rd, I was ecstatic to learn the news.

Navigating Documents & Visas

After being accepted to Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), my first step was to obtain a Convention Traveling Document (CTD), a passport document issued to refugee personnel to assist their travel abroad. It took me two months to complete this procedure. After that, I scheduled a visa interview with the United States Embassy. A CTD was processed for free with the UNHCR’s help, but the visa application was not. These will cost you at least $650 plus a $100 immunization fee. I was able to do so because I had some savings from my tenure as an Assistant Lecturer at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology; otherwise, I would not have been able to pay these costs. My initial visa interview dates were set for November, but I was expected to attend my orientation on August 30th. Through contacts at UNHCR and advocacy on my behalf I was able to get an interview slot for May. 

Life on Campus

At Columbia University SIPA, life is fascinating for me. I am a student at a prestigious Ivy League university where people from all over the world come to learn. I’m learning from distinguished professors with in-depth knowledge, excellent research skills, and global experience. Apart from my regular studies, I pursued extracurricular training options; for example, this semester, I am enrolled in a security + Training course with a practitioner from the US National Security Services. The rich diversity of Columbia SIPA’s student body has presented me with a networking opportunity for my future life and career aspirations in International Affairs. Finally, I appreciate staying in a city that houses multiple international organizations, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Center. These can be found in a magnificent world city known as “The City That Never Sleeps!”

An Asset to the University

I spent one academic year as a student leader at my previous university before coming to SIPA. At Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, I received a Dean’s Prize for Leadership, recognizing my outstanding leadership abilities. Having said that, I bring leadership, negotiating, and mediation abilities to the table. Currently, I’m honing my leadership abilities at SIPA by serving on the SIPASA Student Advisory Committee, which I joined this semester. Before coming to SIPA, I worked as an Assistant Lecturer for three years. I was able to publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal and assist professors with research and other administrative tasks while working in this role. In addition, as a UN Volunteer, I worked with the UNHCR as an education Coordinator in Kakuma, Kenya. As a result, I provide professionalism, teamwork, research abilities, and knowledge of and expertise with UN rules, processes, and practices. As a result, I bring a wealth of experience to the table. I am fluent in English, Kiswahili, Arabic, and intermediate French.