How universities can better support forced migrant students

After a recent conversation with the student group No Lost Generation at the George Washington University (GW) in the United States, I was left with an intriguing and complicated question: how do higher education administrators classify forced migrant students?

No Lost Generation (NLG), a student-led group that advocates for refugee students and supports increasing access to education opportunities for refugees, recently approached GW’s international student services office to discuss how international services can be applied to refugee students.

While grateful for the opportunity to sit down with NLG, I was unsure of what information I could provide them. International student services are generally provided to those students who are on a student visa or taking part in an exchange programme, and I was unsure what my office could legally do to help.

Though GW is host to over 4,000 international students and scholars, the international student services office does not usually serve forced migrant students.

Through our discussion, a valuable idea began to emerge: include forced migrant students in international student services. As only 5% of refugees globally have access to higher education, it is the responsibility of the university to support this group of students and current student categorisations have only inhibited their access to services.

In the higher education system of the United States, students are typically divided into two categories: domestic and international. Domestic students include those who are US citizens and permanent residents. International students are those who receive a student visa to attend school in the US, including the F-1 and J-1 student visas.

During the 2021-22 school year, 948,519 international students were present in the US. For admissions and financial aid purposes, forced migrant students are typically categorised as domestic students, given their legal status.

Segmentation of forced migrant students by their domestic or international identity excludes them from receiving vital services that they need based on their intersectional and diverse identities.

It is not appropriate to consider forced migrant students as international students, since they do not need student visa assistance in most cases and do not pay international student fees. However, the cultural activities and orientation provided to international students can also benefit forced migrant student populations if they are made available.

My conversation with NLG further highlighted that US higher education institutions have a responsibility to provide adequate support to their forced migrant students. While classifying these students as domestic students for the admissions and financial aid process is beneficial, this classification impedes their integration into the university community and their success in their academic programme.

Institutions must re-evaluate their classification of forced migrant students and create strategic outreach plans to integrate these students into the university community and provide essential support services.

International student outreach

First, international student services offices should be made aware of students with various immigration statuses, especially those who are refugees, asylum grantees, special immigrant visa recipients (SIVs), humanitarian parolees and temporary protected status (TPS) recipients.

As a member of the international student services team, I am only aware of these students when they approach our office directly. I have had refugee and asylum students ask for legal and immigration assistance. While the international student services office cannot legally assist forced migrant students with their immigration status, they can provide them with school resources and invite them to cultural programming.

Adding forced migrant students to event listservs and marketing emails will increase the opportunities for this student population to connect with international students and build relationships. These connections can ease culture shock and allow forced migrants to collaborate with students from their own country or from countries with a similar culture to theirs.

Additionally, international student services offices should provide international orientation materials to the forced migrant population. Information about public transportation, health insurance, banks and financial institutions, local international restaurants and how to contact emergency services is essential for forced migrant students.

While this information is commonly provided in orientation guides to foreign students on a student visa, domestic students are often excluded from receiving this information. Though forced migrants do not need student immigration assistance, international student orientation can help with integration efforts and increase their future success.

International student services

Second, certain services should not be limited to only those students on an F-1 or J-1 visa. Some institutions provide international student-specific mental health services with counsellors who are experts in working with international populations.

Higher education institutions should not limit this resource to those classified as international students. Forced migrants have unique mental health needs due to the trauma of migration which would be best addressed by an experienced professional.

In addition, international student services offices and career centres have career advisors specifically designated for international students. They assist students with writing a US-style résumé and preparing for US employment. These advisors are often designated only to work with students on F-1 or J-1 visas.

My international students frequently use these career advisors as they also provide valuable information about how to maintain their immigration status while working. Forced migrant students should have access to these advisors as they too need assistance with the US job search and application process.

Language programmes are also usually designated for international students arriving on a student visa. Although they are already in the US, some forced migrant students could benefit from additional language classes. These classes should be available to non-student-visa students, ensuring further academic success for forced migrant students.

Inclusive, intersectional programmes

Finally, US higher education institutions need to design programmes that accommodate the various identities that students have.

Intersectionality, or the lens to examine how various identities operate together, is essential when designing programmes. While forced migrant students are considered domestic students, it is important to consider their immigration status, nationality and additional identities to create inclusive programmes.

Higher education institutions should provide international student mentorship programmes that cater to all identities, including forced migrants. Peer mentorship programmes should strive to represent various identities, specifically immigration status, sexuality, gender and race.

Within the international services office at my university, we have community ambassadors who are international students who provide general assistance and events to the international student community.

Though our community ambassadors are diverse in terms of nationality and gender, we must consider adding additional diversity to the team, such as a forced migrant student. By providing intersectional mentorship and programming, forced migrant students can find their niche and make connections with others who share parts of their identity.

Creating safe spaces for forced migrant students to collaborate and share their experiences is important, especially for those who have faced discrimination based on their identity. US higher education institutions must consider intersectionality when designing programming and highlight immigration status as an identity to be included.

Additional efforts

As neither domestic students nor international students, forced migrant students are in a grey area. The ability to receive lower, in-state tuition rates and financial aid is extremely beneficial to this group of students. But these students badly need further support than what is offered to most domestic students.

Groups like NLG are valuable resources to be used by university staff and faculty to create inclusive, intersectional programming and services that reach the forced migrant student population. International student services offices should be open to conversations and collaboration with forced migrant support and advocacy groups and should make additional efforts to reach this unique student population.

Jessica Crist is the senior international services associate at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, United States. In addition to her professional role, Crist received her MA in international education from George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development and is the 2022 recipient of the Nakyuin Shin International Education Award. Crist is a co-founder of the Refugee Educational Advancement Lab at George Washington University and has spent the past year completing a research study with refugee background students in the DC, Maryland and Virginia areas. Crist has worked for various higher education institutions in the US, Chile and Mexico.