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Seven lessons & reflections for refugee students on US campuses

New and expanding scholarships for displaced students create opportunities for refugee students to access U.S. higher education and a way for colleges and universities to welcome and bring the incredible talents of refugee students to their campus. At the same time, there are some unique challenges that refugee students face while studying on U.S. campuses.

This piece includes seven key lessons and reflections shared by Bwema Matata who was born in South Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was orphaned by the war and found safety as a refugee in Uganda in 2012. For over 8 years as a refugee, Bwema worked in a variety of social work positions, including child protection and entrepreneurship.  In 2021, Bwema enrolled as a student at Columbia University pursuing Master of Social Work with concentration in Clinical Social Work Practice through the  Columbia University Scholarship for Displaced Students.

Bwema shares seven lessons he has learned and that will be useful for future displaced students as they adjust to their studies in the U.S.

  1. Self-reliance– While there are many resources and supports available to support students, it’s up to you to ask and find the resources that you need. You know yourself the best, so take time to identify what you need and ask for support. 
  2. Homesickness Even though studying in the U.S. may be the fulfillment of a dream, it is still stressful and challenging. There will be times that you feel overwhelmed or miss home. It’s important to develop and draw upon your coping mechanism and ask for help when you need it.
  3. Power of Kindness–  If you have always been a giver or caretaker, it can be challenging to feel like you don’t have anything to give.  You may not have a lot of financial resources while in the US, but kindness costs nothing.  It can be simple things, like sending a polite email to a professor, holding the door to the library open for the person behind you, or saying thank you to the cafeteria workers.
  4. Budgeting– It’s important to carefully manage and budget your money throughout your studies. Even with a full scholarship, there are many costs and so you have to manage your monthly expenses carefully.
  5. Written English: You will be spending a lot of time writing in English so be prepared to always be revising and correcting your grammar. It takes a lot of work and practice, but your written English will improve.
  6. Self-motivation: The ability to motivate myself is a skill that I developed at Columbia University, and one that will be very handy when you are  faced with the choice between an afternoon off or an afternoon in the library reading.
  7. Time management: There are a lot of competing priorities and things that take up your attention. It’s essential to balance and plan your time in order to complete your course work, student activities and taking care of yourself.

As campuses welcome refugee and displaced students, creating an opportunity for current students and alumni to connect and share their experience with perspective and new students is invaluable. Peer mentorship is key to academic and social integration. For more resources, check out tips for Offering Scholarships for Refugee Students Overseas and more student narratives.