US$3.3 million pledged to support Syrian academics and students

Responding to the worsening situation in Syria, Institute of International Education (IIE) President and CEO Allan Goodman recently announced that a global consortium of higher education institutions and organisations had pledged an additional US$1.3 million in emergency support for threatened Syrian scholars and students.

This comes on top of US$2 million committed by a partnership of the IIE, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and Syrian NGO Jusoor in September when they launched the IIE Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis at the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting.

The consortium intends granting threatened students, professors and senior scholars of the Syrian diaspora academic financial support – in the form of scholarships and fellowships – and safe haven until they can return home and help rebuild their nation.

Given the groundswell of support within the global higher education community and the show of interest from independent foundations and individual donors since September, IIE Vice President for Strategic Development Daniela Kaisth is optimistic the global consortium will be able to realise its goal of US$5 million for 2013.

In the space of just two months, the consortium has grown to include 35 universities and colleges, from the US, Canada, Hungary, the UK, Mexico and France, with Ohio’s University of Akron and Chatham University in Cape May, New Jersey, having signed up last week.

All the member institutions and organisations are committed to offering a full or partial scholarship to Syrian students or hosting a threatened Syrian scholar – and many are doing both.

For instance, Universidad Veracruzana in Veracruz, Mexico, is giving two tuition waivers to Syrian students (the value of which depends on the programme and level of study) as well as providing on-campus housing.

And Fairleigh Dickinson University in Hackensack, New Jersey, is committing a total of US$60,000 in the form of a single student scholarship and scholar fellowship along with housing support.

The Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, is providing two full scholarships valued at US$57,000.

Alternately, DePaul University in Chicago is interested in providing a full scholarship to a doctoral student in computer science. It is also exploring whether it might be able to make some of its online courses freely accessible to Syrian students who cannot leave a country with a severely damaged higher education infrastructure.

With regard to this impressive array of synergistic strategies by the global higher education community, Kaisth observed that “a central theme to this initiative is innovation”.

“There are a variety of solutions, and the IIE’s role is to provide leadership for institutions and organisations that are seeking creative ways to support Syrian students and scholars during this emergency.”

But, she added: “Since many of the institutional offerings are only partial, what we need most now is donor funding in order to provide emergency grants to Syrian students and to supplement and enhance support packages.”

She pointed – as an example – to the gift of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation in Washington DC of three fellowships for scholars.

Ultimately, the initiative’s success relies on ensuring that threatened Syrian students and scholars are made aware of what opportunities are available. For this reason, the IIE and its partners are actively involved in building an online outreach portal that will provide information about and access to these opportunities.

Together with the member institutions, the IIE and the US Department of State’s EducationUSA network will make comprehensive information available to the higher education diaspora both within and outside of Syria. Jusoor will further facilitate links and advertise the opportunities within the Syrian community.

The portal is expected to be launched next month.

There is no over-emphasising the need or the urgency of the situation. Indeed, according to the UN Human Rights Commission, the number of registered refugees fleeing Syria has trebled since June to just over 350,000 people in 2012 alone.

Goodman explained that initiatives like this are necessary for Syria’s future rebuilding – that, even in spite of the calamitous situation, “the country is [still] producing leadership and knowledge”.