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US program seeks to resettle, educate refugee students

FILE - James Madison University students walk to commencement in Harrisonburg, Va., May 5, 2017. The school is participating in Welcome Corps on Campus, a federal refugee resettlement and education program. (Stephen Swofford/Daily News-Record Via AP)
FILE - James Madison University students walk to commencement in Harrisonburg, Va., May 5, 2017. The school is participating in Welcome Corps on Campus, a federal refugee resettlement and education program. (Stephen Swofford/Daily News-Record Via AP)

Many of the newest and youngest refugees are fleeing armed conflicts around the globe.

The world’s refugee crisis has never been worse. The number has doubled in a decade to more than 100 million people, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

To ease the growing crisis, the U.S. State Department launched a program in January 2023 with private partnerships, called Welcome Corps, to help resettle refugees. Six months later, it launched a companion version called Welcome Corps on Campus to resettle and educate refugee students by partnering with colleges and universities.

“Certainly, the Welcome Corps on Campus is not going to solve the global refugee crisis,” said Nele Feldmann, associate director, Welcome Corps on Campus, Community Sponsorship Hub.

“I think many times we feel powerless when confronted with the scope of displacement,” Feldmann said. “And I think that programs like Welcome Core on Campus give universities and colleges and their surrounding communities a really tangible way to have a positive impact and give back to refugee communities.”

Currently, Welcome Corps on Campus has recruited students who are in refuge in Jordan and Kenya for the incoming classes of 2024 and 2025. The students sheltered in Kenya were recruited from South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And the students being sheltered in Jordan were largely recruited from Syria but include some Iraqi and Yemeni students.

As the program grows, the geographic scope of the recruitment efforts will include refugees from other parts of the world.

Two for JMU

James Madison University joined the new program and will sponsor two refugees.

The school handpicked a team of five sponsors who are tasked with providing care, support and guidance to two young Kenyans coming to their Virginia campus.

“This team is going to propel them so that their story doesn’t stop at James Madison; it is going to start here,” said Christina Kilby, a sponsor and a James Madison professor of religion.

“Only 5% or 6% of refugees get to access higher education,” she added.

The sponsors are anticipating and preparing for all of the details, big and small, their two African refugees will need to address to live in Harrisonburg, Virginia, along with the 22,000 other students on the JMU campus.

“What are those first interactions going to be like and what food are we going to bring?” said Kim Davidson, a sponsor, who is also the director of the Community Engagement Center at James Madison. “And where are we going to stop on the way home, and can we bring them a pillow?”

“What’s exciting to me is introducing them to my family,” Kilby told VOA. “And having my kids get to learn from them and their experiences, and that new network they are going to build to really make possible whatever their goals are."

Another member of the school’s refugees sponsor team is associate professor Delores Phillips, director of the African, African American and Diaspora Studies Center at JMU.

“I think I want to take them out myself and see what they like and see what they know,” Phillips told VOA. “And give them some time to acclimate. And let them wander around a little.”

Starting this fall

The program’s freshman class of 33 refugees, ages 18-24 and sheltered in Kenya, will start school, the first year of the program, in the fall of 2024 at 18 U.S. colleges and universities.

And the 75 members of the class that will start in the fall of 2025 were accepted and recruited while taking shelter in Jordan. If all goes as planned, the two incoming classes of freshmen will graduate from their schools in 2028 and 2029.

The State Department has resettled 138,134 of the world’s refugees into the U.S. since 2021. But Welcome Corps on Campus is a new path for resettlement into the U.S.

As part of Welcome Corps on Campus, the State Department granted the students in the program refugee status, humanitarian protection and asylum from the problems they are fleeing, such as violence or persecution based on their nationality, politics, religion, race or social affiliations.

One of the most important jobs the five sponsors will have is to protect the refugees from stereotypes and biases, Phillips said.

“I think that stigmas and assumptions are also going to be our challenge, in terms of an institution,” she said. “We will assume that they are poor. We will assume that they are unlettered and unread. We will assume that they are dusty village people and they may not be.”

Phillips added that, prior to being accepted into Welcome Corps on Campus, some of the refugees may have had outstanding educations that are equivalent to those received at Oxford University.

"They may have actually been schooled in the Oxonian tradition,” she added.

Survey results

Republicans and Democrats in Congress, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are battling over immigration policy in the U.S. Currently, anti-immigration sentiments in the country are so high that many of the schools helping refugee students fear backlash, and they asked VOA not to identity their campuses.

A September 2022 Pew Research Center poll found 72% of Americans said it was very or somewhat important for the U.S. to take in civilian refugees seeking escape from violence and war, but only 28% of Americans said taking in refugees was a very important priority.

But JMU and its Welcome Corps on Campus sponsors are unwavering in their support for refugees, which some immigration experts and refugee advocates say sets an example for students and other schools.

“I just believe that we are all citizens of a very interconnected world,” said Davidson, of JMU’s Community Engagement Center. “They are leaving so much behind, like family and everything that they’ve known, and hopes and prayers. That’s a heavy weight on them and a responsibility on us, too.”

The sentiment all the sponsors share is that the Welcome Corps on Campus is good for refugees but also good for JMU because it is in line with the university’s mission to make a difference on a global scale by making a difference in the local community.

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Senator draws attention to universities that haven’t returned remains

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, speaks with reporters as he walks to a vote on Capitol Hill, Sept. 6, 2023 in Washington.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, speaks with reporters as he walks to a vote on Capitol Hill, Sept. 6, 2023 in Washington.

More than 70 U.S. universities continue to hold human remains taken from Native American burial sites, although those remains were supposed to be returned 30 years ago.

Jennifer Bendery writes in Huffington Post that one senator has been using his position in an attempt to shame universities into returning remains and artifacts. (April 2024)

COVID forced one international student to go hungry

FILE - Masked students walk to the COVID-19 vaccination site at the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium on the Jackson State University campus in Jackson, Miss., July 27, 2021.
FILE - Masked students walk to the COVID-19 vaccination site at the Rose E. McCoy Auditorium on the Jackson State University campus in Jackson, Miss., July 27, 2021.

When Samantha (not her real name) enrolled in community college in the U.S., her family at home in South Africa scrimped and saved to support her.

But the COVID-19 pandemic hurt the family’s finances, and at one point Samantha had four on-campus jobs just to make ends meet. Many in the U.S. believe international students are wealthy sources of funding for universities, but stories like Samantha’s suggest otherwise.

Andrea Gutierrez reports for The World. (March 2024)

Tips for paying for a STEM degree as an international student

FILE - FILE - A visitor to the 21st China Beijing International High-tech Expo looks at a computer chip through the microscope displayed by the Tsinghua Unigroup project in Beijing, on May 17, 2018.
FILE - FILE - A visitor to the 21st China Beijing International High-tech Expo looks at a computer chip through the microscope displayed by the Tsinghua Unigroup project in Beijing, on May 17, 2018.

For US News & World Report, Melanie Lockert describes how to calculate the cost of a STEM degree, and where to find funding. (March 2024)

NAIA all but bans its transgender college athletes from women's sports

FILE - NAIA women’s basketball players gather after a game in St. Louis, Feb. 22, 2024. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, said Monday that transgender athletes would be all but banned from women's sports.
FILE - NAIA women’s basketball players gather after a game in St. Louis, Feb. 22, 2024. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, said Monday that transgender athletes would be all but banned from women's sports.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the governing body for mostly small colleges, announced a policy Monday that all but bans transgender athletes from competing in women's sports.

The NAIA's Council of Presidents approved the policy in a 20-0 vote. The NAIA, which oversees some 83,000 athletes at schools across the country, is believed to be the first college sports organization to take such a step.

According to the transgender participation policy, all athletes may participate in NAIA-sponsored male sports but only athletes whose biological sex assigned at birth is female and have not begun hormone therapy will be allowed to participate in women's sports.

A student who has begun hormone therapy may participate in activities such as workouts, practices and team activities, but not in interscholastic competition.

"With the exception of competitive cheer and competitive dance, the NAIA created separate categories for male and female participants," the NAIA said. "Each NAIA sport includes some combination of strength, speed and stamina, providing competitive advantages for male student-athletes. As a result, the NAIA policy for transgender student-athletes applies to all sports except for competitive cheer and competitive dance, which are open to all students."

There is no known number of transgender athletes at the high school and college levels, though it is believed to be small. The topic has become a hot-button issue for those for and against transgender athletes competing on girls' and women's sports teams.

At least 24 states have laws barring transgender women and girls from competing in certain women's or girls sports competitions. Last month, more than a dozen current and former college athletes filed a federal lawsuit against the NCAA, accusing the sports governing body for more than 500,000 athletes of violating their rights by allowing transgender women to compete in women's sports.

The Biden administration originally planned to release a new federal Title IX rule — the law forbids discrimination based on sex in education — addressing both campus sexual assault and transgender athletes. But earlier this year, the department decided to split them into separate rules, and the athletics rule now remains in limbo even as the sexual assault policy moves forward.

Hours after the NAIA announcement, the NCAA released a statement: "College sports are the premier stage for women's sports in America and the NCAA will continue to promote Title IX, make unprecedented investments in women's sports and ensure fair competition for all student-athletes in all NCAA championships."

The NCAA has had a policy for transgender athlete participation in place since 2010, which called for one year of testosterone suppression treatment and documented testosterone levels submitted before championship competitions. In 2022, the NCAA revised its policies on transgender athlete participation in an attempt to align with national sport governing bodies, following the lead of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

The three-phase implementation of the policy included a continuation of the 2010 policy, requiring transgender women to be on hormone replacement therapy for at least one year, plus the submission of a hormone-level test before the start of both the regular season and championship events.

The third phase adds national and international sport governing body standards to the NCAA's policy and is scheduled to be implemented for the 2024-25 school year on August 1.

There are some 15.3 million public high school students in the United States and a 2019 study by the CDC estimated 1.8% of them — about 275,000 — are transgender. The number of athletes within that group is much smaller; a 2017 survey by Human Rights Campaign suggested fewer than 15% of all transgender boys and transgender girls play sports.

The number of NAIA transgender athletes would be far smaller.

Humanities degrees are tougher sell for international students 

FILE - People walk near the campus center at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., Dec. 9, 2013.
FILE - People walk near the campus center at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., Dec. 9, 2013.

That’s the argument of one Princeton undergraduate from South Korea.

OPT, the government program that allows college students to work in the US for a short time after graduation without securing a work visa, is biased toward STEM degree holders.

As a result, many international students forego humanities, or choose tech or consulting jobs when their passions lie elsewhere.

Read Siyeon Lee’s argument in the Princetonian. (March 2024)

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