Nevfel Akkasoglu was arrested and imprisoned for 14 months during the attempted Turkish military coup d’état in 2016 for being associated with a university the Turkish government had shut down.
Akkasoglu eventually made his way to New York’s Columbia University, where a new scholarship allows him to live and study without fear or worry over how to finance his education.
“This is really important for me to pursue my dreams in returning to my original profession, as being a lawyer, in the United States. I believe it would be really hard to pursue a master’s degree without that scholarship,” said Akkasoglu, a candidate for a Master of Laws (LL.M) degree in data privacy and cybersecurity at Columbia Law School.
Akkasoglu and his wife have asylum in the U.S.
“Being approved told me that our story, the things that I experienced in Turkey, the grave situations, really mattered. It told me that there is still hope, there is still hope in life. You should continue to pursue your dreams no matter what, and you should never give up,” said Akkasoglu.
His scholarship at Columbia is new and unusual. The Ivy League school offers full scholarships every year for refugees and other displaced students.
The Columbia University Scholarship for Displaced Students (CUSDS) was launched in December 2019. It is the first-ever Columbia-wide scholarship and the world’s first of its kind, according to the school’s website.
“I’m very grateful that I got the scholarship,” said Shabnam Fayyaz, a CUSDS recipient. Born in Afghanistan in 1996, the year the Taliban came to power, Fayyaz and her family fled first to Pakistan.
“I’m learning a lot. For every reading, I’m like, ‘Woah, this is what I really want to do.’ It’s like a dream that I’m fulfilling through this scholarship that I have and through this master’s human rights studies that I’m doing at Columbia,” said Fayyaz.
“Having this scholarship and doing this master’s, I’m discovering that I’m very interested in doing a PhD in human rights or going to law school to help immigrants and refugees in the future, especially women, coming from countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan,” she added.
Fayyaz is pursuing her master’s degree in human rights with a focus on refugee rights and women’s rights. She applied for asylum in 2019, and her case is pending.
Administered by the Columbia Global Centers, which are research outposts established by the university in nine international locations, CUSDS commits up to $6 million in scholarship money for up to 30 students.
The scholarship covers the students’ tuition, housing and living assistance while they pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees across all 18 of Columbia’s schools and affiliates.
Recipients will also reap mentoring benefits from the schools and student groups.
“[This scholarship] means hope. And despite all the challenges we have currently in the world, we can still make a change when you provide skilled people, who have the potential to change the world, then we are still in a good place,” said Sami Salloum, originally from Damascus, Syria, and a CUSDS recipient.
Salloum is a master’s student focusing on negotiation and conflict resolution. Before attending Columbia, Salloum interned with the United Nations Security Council. His case seeking asylum is pending.
“If other universities follow the pioneering experience that Columbia has launched, we’ll be in a good place where millions of children and youth who have been deprived from their education can join and prove themselves, and improve the circumstances of their communities,” Salloum added.
As of 2019, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that there were nearly 80 million displaced people around the world as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations.
Columbia University is accepting applications for its second class of CUSDS recipients. Those seeking to apply must be foreign nationals with refugee status or who have received U.S. asylum, submitted an asylum application, be in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status, or be classified as internally displaced persons. Those who are eligible may apply from anywhere in the world. There are no age restrictions and students are accepted on a rolling basis.
Applicants must apply to and be accepted by one of the degree programs listed on the website to be eligible for the CUSDS. Acceptance requirements and application deadlines differ depending on the school and degree program.
For the 2020-21 academic year, 18 students from 13 countries were selected from a competitive pool of more than 1,200 applicants.
“These students have been through traumatic experiences and they are determined to not let that stand in the way of them being able to pursue their dreams,” said Safwan Masri, the executive vice president for Columbia’s Global Centers and Global Development.
He added, “For us, at Columbia, to be able to provide them that opportunity that they otherwise would not have had, to get a full ride and pursue their studies, feels incredibly powerful.”