Refugees find refuge as college students in Vermont
Champlain College awards scholarships to Rwandans, Vietnamese, and others, enriching recipients and fellow students.
When Champlain College president David Finney saw a documentary about the challenges that refugees face in the United States, he thought of the displaced people who had landed in his own community. With Burlington, Vt., designated as a refugee resettlement city, "it was a short leap to think 'We can really make a difference," he says. "It occurred to me that these families are kind of on the knife edge of ... either the cycle of the great American dream – of good jobs and prosperity – or a cycle of poverty."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Champlain College launched the New American Student Scholarship in the fall of 2006, offering substantial support for refugees living in Vermont. Eighteen scholars have enrolled at the 2,000-student campus from such countries as Bosnia, Rwanda, and Vietnam. The number could grow to 50 or 60 over the next several years.
Champlain officials aren't aware of other colleges offering this type of scholarship. For them, it fits into broader plans to diversify a campus where the majority of students grew up in Vermont. "Education is a lot richer if the classroom has multiple voices ... and these [refugee] students come with a worldview that is very different than the average, relatively parochial American student," Finney says. He believes that such interaction better equips students for a globalized job market.
Chris Pamboukes, a junior majoring in mass communication, met a pair of brothers from Rwanda when they all worked to raise awareness about homelessness by living in tents temporarily. "The diversity level's not big; we don't have a lot of African-American students, so every bit of change helps," he says. Sometimes the differences he enjoys are as small as the touching way in which these two young men pat their hearts after shaking hands with a friend.
One of those new friends is Jean Luc Dushime, now in his second semester at Champlain. Nancy Kerr has taught him in several mass communication courses. He's older and "more worldly" than a number of her students, she says, so "the perspective he brought ... was fascinating." He shared what it was like to live in a country where the media was government-controlled.
Graphic design professor Toni-Lee Sangastiano says the work of the two refugee scholars she has taught stands out: "It's like they reinterpreted the assignment and brought it to a higher level," she says. Their participation in critiques and sheer joy in creating art is "a really good push for [other] students."
The pioneer scholarship recipients also act as mentors in their neighborhoods, encouraging younger students to see college as a possibility.
Three of the first 12 students didn't return the following year, partly because of financial struggles. So campus officials have worked on communicating more clearly about the living expenses and extras people need to cover after being granted federal aid, state aid, and the scholarship – determined individually, but averaging about $6,000 a year.
The support has been strong, students say. Mr. Dushime and others received advice about courses to take at a community college in order to qualify for admission and transfer credits. Champlain also launched a diversity office and brought in an AmeriCorps volunteer to help the students connect with resources.
While the scholarship is available to students who arrived young and grew up in Vermont, it's particularly moving to see the opportunity offered to new arrivals whose education was interrupted by war, says Judy Scott, director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. "The scholarship is an extraordinary gift.... To people who really have lost everything from their past, it offers them a future, in that they can develop their talents, develop their minds, to become contributing members of the community."
Here are some of the Champlain students' stories:
Jean Luc: A long road to college