Utah college students on refugee policy

Story and photos by BLAKE LANCASTER

College can be a life-changing part of anyone’s life. Many college students move out for the first time, start their journey to their careers, and real-life topics that may have not mattered as a kid suddenly start to mean more.

There’s a reason why refugee resettlement is such a hot topic around the world. The U.N.’s refugee agency reported in 2016 that 65.3 million people are displaced, which is one for each 113 people and the highest that number has ever been surpassing even the end of World War II. This has sparked political debate in many Western countries where refugees seek refuge, including America, regarding how many refugees should be admitted into the country each year.

“We’re going the wrong way,” said Warren Kidman, a student from the University of Utah, regarding the U.S. admitting 60,000 fewer refugees in 2017 so far compared to 2016. “So much on the news I see that more and more people are showing up at these refugee camps without slowing down and people just arguing about how many we should allow here.”

Kidman happened to be passionate on the subject. He said he doesn’t watch the news much, but something about the stories on refugees and immigration seem to interest him. Kidman isn’t a fan of the low refugee admittance number or recent travel ban from the Trump administration.

“I just think it’s funny how America’s origin is pretty much a bunch of white people claiming some land that other people were already living in and now we’re being stingy with it,” Kidman said.

While Kidman is unhappy with the current refugee crisis and how America is handling it, that isn’t the case for everyone. Jacob Breinholdt, a sophomore in the University of Utah’s pre-law program, said Trump is making smart moves in the refugee situation.

“Every day there’s a new story from one of the European countries that host lots of refugees. Whether it’s the bombings, fights breaking out, sex crimes, stealing, or whatever, I just don’t like all the negativity I’ve read or watched the news about,” Breinholdt said. “Why commit crimes in the place giving you refuge? It makes the whole refugee situation look bad.”

Barack Obama had an overwhelming focus on refugees especially from Syria as an estimated 11 million have fled their homes from a civil war. Donald Trump has cut the number of Syrian refugees that Obama had set by over 80 percent and cut the total number of worldwide refugees allowed in by over half.

“I hate to judge an entire group of people, but what has happened so far in Europe the last couple of years isn’t a small sample size. I don’t know if it’s clashing cultural values or what, but I stand with Trump’s choices until the violence and negativity in other countries of refuge stops,” Breinholdt said. “It’s not worth jeopardizing the safety of Americans and our country.”

However, McKenzie Sandler, a student at Salt Lake Community College and volunteer for The Refugee Education Initiative, doesn’t like to dwell on the negatives.

“I wish Trump, his team, and the people who support his decisions on refugees could just meet some of these kids I’ve worked with,” said Sandler, talking about refugee students she tutors through this program. “They’re people too, but a big difference from us is the amount of help they need right now.”

Sandler has tutored and mentored students from several countries at The Education Initiative, both online and at the downtown center at 101 S. 200 East. She went there once for a high school class and decided she wanted to do more. In spring of 2018 she will be transferring to the University of Utah’s College of Social Work in hopes to enter a career in a field similar to where she’s been volunteering.

“If someone told me five years ago that this would be my career plan, I probably wouldn’t have believed them,” Sandler said. “I had no idea a simple high school assignment would inspire me in this area this much.”

Sandler encouraged others to volunteer and if not to at least learn more about the The Education Initiative at the website.

While there are certainly dissenting opinions on refugee policy, it can be promising to see young people with an interest in refugees and other real world topics.


Uniting for a cause: partnership provides promise of education for refugees in Salt Lake City


The University of Utah, in partnership with Salt Lake Community College and Jesuit Worldwide Learning, is working hard to make it feasible for refugees to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work.

Jesuit Worldwide Learning Higher Education at the Margins (JWL) is a collaborative global partnership that provides an education to those who are marginalized, including refugees, internally displaced people, economically poor, and socially neglected and underserved.

JWL, whose global headquarters is in Geneva, constructs online and in-person learning centers around the world. It offers three levels of educational opportunities, including the Academic or Diploma Program. The online infrastructure allows those in remote villages or in refugee camps, without locally operated schools, to gain an education.

Once a refugee finishes with the programs provided by JWL, the student can begin taking online classes from Salt Lake Community College. Students who complete their last 15 credit hours with SLCC can earn an associate degree. The college has agreed to charge refugees in-state tuition.

Once an associate degree is earned, the University of Utah hopes to take over from there.

Laying the groundwork

Patrick Panos, a professor of social work and director of Global Education and Outreach at the U, is the driving force behind the effort to provide refugees with a chance to earn a bachelor’s degree and become leaders in their respective communities.

“Without an education, all you have is your physical labor to sell. And if all you have is your physical labor, that is a time-limited commodity,” he says.

JWL laid most of the groundwork for SLCC and the U by setting up a structure for education in distant war-torn areas that the colleges wouldn’t dare enter. Panos says he is grateful for the organization’s work.

“They’re going to places where we could not physically go. The University of Utah is not going to go open up a school in Afghanistan. But [the U] can have students in Afghanistan through this process,” he says.

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Refugees take pride in their education from the University of Utah. Photo courtesy of Karen Cordova.

Francis P. Xavier, vice president for academics and research for JWL, said in an email interview that the organization currently has learning centers in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. He hopes JWL will become more global in the future.

A trial run proved the functionality of the distance-learning program and the feasibility of providing online classes with little cost to the student. The classes at the U will be offered to student refugees who qualify. That group will become known as a closed cohort, and pay nominal tuition to the College of Social Work rather than to the university as a whole. This is significant because the college will cover the cost of classes so the refugee students don’t have to. “I can charge them a dollar a class, and that‘s OK. And the university is OK with that,” Panos says.

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Graduates of the University of Utah’s Case Management Certificate Program in 2015. Photo courtesy of Karen Cordova.

Technology as a learning tool

Distance learning challenges historical notions of how a university operates. Traditionally, students come to campus, where they have access to amenities such as tutoring centers and the library. But an online delivery of course content makes it possible for refugees and others in marginalized communities to pursue educational opportunities.

The classes at the U will operate through Canvas, an online learning platform that connects professors and students in real time. A library database can be accessed with a student ID, so refugee students are able to access scholarly articles at their fingertips.

Kyle Jensen, director of Canvas user interface, said in an email interview that Canvas is special in terms of communication.

“Canvas, at its core, is a communication tool. As such, we aim to encourage high quality, meaningful interaction opportunities between educators and students. We also spend a lot of time and resources ensuring that Canvas works for everyone.”

Collaboration leads to reciprocal learning

Students within the Canvas classroom have much to gain from this collaboration and cultural exchange, both of which are crucial to the nature of social work. This relationship is valuable, as it allows traditional students to gain other perspectives before entering their profession.

Regarding the distance learners, Panos said, “If you want to have your students have a high impact upon graduation, these are them. They are changing the world. Educate a refugee — change the world.”

Panos pointed out that refugees who are trained in social work are then able to use this knowledge to work within their respective communities to improve the lives of the people living in the camps.

“Social workers learn how to advocate, how to do community development, how to do all of the things about how to reconstitute a community — and bring mental health in, child welfare in, and all those different pieces,” Panos says.

Refugee students speak in the native dialect of fellow asylum seekers, and have intimate knowledge of what is needed in the places where they work. Because of this insight, graduates of the College of Social Work can later seek employment with International relief efforts such as Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations.

Panos has high hopes for the future of the program. He’d like to see it expand beyond the College of Social Work, so students can earn other degrees in fields such as nursing, architecture and education. Panos also said his wish is for more refugees to have access to higher education, made possible by a collaboration of efforts from universities and programs in the U.S.

Xavier, the JWL executive, said his organization currently offers a diploma and some associate degrees. It wants to offer bachelors and master’s degrees and eventually doctoral degrees.

“I look forward [to] JWL becoming a virtual university which offers degrees of high quality for the refugees and the marginalized at affordable cost,” Xavier says.









Salt Lake Community College welcomes refugees with open arms, minds


The South City campus of Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) is teeming with students, some ambitious, some reluctantly present, some looking to further their education, some looking to quiet nagging parents. Then there are those who come from far away, one group to whom this confusion seems mundane. With all the diverse qualities that envelope the students at SLCC, there is one group that shares a mutual bond far deeper than the institution could provide on its own. They are the refugee population.

The refugees are not all from the same place, the same region even, but they do share the same difficult past that brought them to Salt Lake. Now that they are here, however, their opportunities will not be hindered.

One of the main reasons refugees have found so much success in Salt Lake City is because of the opportunity to receive encouragement and development at SLCC. The school has made a point of welcoming the students with open arms, even with the language barrier.

“We have only had a little trouble incorporating the refugee students into a normal student life,” said Cindy Clark, an early-enrollment advisor who is also in charge of the Sudanese Student Association at SLCC. “But that is made easier by the wearing down of the language barrier. That is why our ESL [English as a Second Language] Program is so essential.”

Clark said English is one of the biggest issues that an incoming refugee student will face at school. Other issues usually are individualized. This could mean culture shock for one student or finances for another. This is why she has to remain close with the students.

“A lot of these kids are used to never having anywhere to turn, never having someone to ask how to handle a tough situation,” Clark said. “My job with them is to make sure that they don’t slip off the grid due to simple neglect. I never want to lose one that could have been avoided.”

SLCC has even included space on its application to denote refugee status, which might include long-standing documented refugees to people who have lived here for 24 months or less. This can allow someone like Clark to identify who requires more attention in the beginning.

Refugees come from an extremely adverse political, religious, environmental, or social situation. This makes it very difficult from the outset to proceed with what is considered a traditional Western education.

A war-torn state can produce an exponential amount of refugees, depending on the group being persecuted. When these refugees are exiled, it is a long road before they are granted the chance to start over.

This process can often take years to sort out, depending on the gravity of the situation, and can frequently lead to disheartening times.

“I was only 5 years old when we were told to leave our home,” said George Artsistas, a student at the University of Utah. Artsistas was born to Greek parents in Croatia in 1989, two years before the war broke out. By 1994, his parents were being forced out of the country and were made to stay in camps. Because of some work by his father, George ended up in Marin County, Calif., in 1996.

“I was introduced to a life in which formal schooling was nonexistent,” Artsistas said. “It was the polar opposite to what I had been told, and I lost a few key years in my schooling. When we came in, I had to play catch up, but thanks to my parents, that wasn’t too difficult.”

Now these students are in an environment that is conducive to learning and interacting, rather than destructive. Artsistas is working to become a film major at the University of Utah after a brief stint at SLCC.

“I have the opportunity that I would have never been afforded, and my parents are beyond excited,” Artsistas said. “They never thought in a million years that they would see their son go to college.”

The genuine thirst for an education is not uncommon among refugee students, and it is this attribute that could serve them well, especially now that they are making life decisions.

“I was told everything that I was allowed to do my whole life,” said Sean Keranovic of Prijedor, Bosnia. “When I went, it was the first time that I was told that I could do something that I wanted to do.”

Keranovic is about to graduate and has found work through connections he made while at SLCC. He met a speaker in a business class, and through frequent contact eventually landed a job with POWDR Corp., a holding company, based in Park City, that operates eight winter resorts.

“Sean has showed a phenomenal work ethic, a yes-man through and through, you can tell this job means a lot to him,” said Rick DesVaux, the former CFO of POWDR, and the man who hired Keranovic. “We have him in a type of quasi-internship, one that allows him the flexibility to continue school, if he chooses to, but also become competent in the work place. He has really shown that he cares not only about his job, but his future as well.”

Keranovic is only putting together presentations, in which he often will construct the display pieces, but he enjoys the responsibility. “I didn’t learn that I could go to college until I heard about Salt Lake Community College’s refugee program,” Keranovic said. “I mean I come from Bosnia, Clinton’s only political blemish,” he said, laughing.

Keranovic is one of a handful of SLCC graduates who have found work in the corporate world.

Another successful graduate is Simon Kuay, 33, a Sudanese “Lost Boy” who owns K&K African Market. The store doubles as a hangout for other Sudanese refugees. He has managed to fuse old and new traditions.

“This started as a business for me,” Kuay said. “Who would have thought it would become some sort of center for us.”

And while K&K might be one social and cultural center for the Sudanese, the, like other refugees, are happy to settle on SLCC as a rallying point.

“That is what we try to do here,” Clark said. “We embrace them with open arms. They receive no special academic treatment while they are here, mind you, but as far as everything else goes, we are here for them 100 percent. They are always worth it.”

So the bustle around the SLCC campus continues, stretching all across the valley, from campus to campus, classroom to classroom. Now, however, that bustle includes those who feel fortunate to have access to education.

“Granted I was very young, but my family came over here under refugee circumstances, which immediately put us at a disadvantage,” Keranovic said. “But now, I go to school and have a job where I have to wear a tie. That is a pretty cool change.” 

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