Refugees find refuge as college students in Vermont

Champlain College awards scholarships to Rwandans, Vietnamese, and others, enriching recipients and fellow students.

Mary Knox Merrill - staff
Hau Le attends class at Champlain College.
Mary Knox Merrill – Staff
Student life: (L. to r.), Maria Thach, Jean Luc Dushime, and Hau Le play pool at Champlain College.
Mary Knox Merrill - staff
Giving back: Jean Luc Dushime, originally from Rwanda, laughs with immigrant children at Barnes Elementary School in Burlington, Vt., where he volunteers. He speaks five languages.

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."

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

Jean Luc Dushime's road to Champlain College was more than 4,000 miles long.

That's how far his family walked to escape when violence erupted in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was 16. His family had gone to the DRC seeking refuge during the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

He attended school after arriving in Republic of Congo, before being resettled in Burlington in 2004. "I'm still learning to come back to life," he says, reflecting on the six-month walk where he felt like a "zombie," thinking only about survival.

It's Mr. Dushime's energy, by contrast, that impresses people here. His experiences have left him conversant in five languages and hungry to learn. This lithe young man has refined his English and taken up snowboarding. He volunteers at a youth center and works with refugee students in local schools.

Despite having earned a journalism degree in Africa, he needed a US degree to be marketable, and he's studying public relations. When he inquired at Champlain, he says, "not only did people want to see me get in, but they were interested to know me as a person.... After that, the big jump was the money." The scholarship came just in time.

"The first month was kind of hard, not only being black African, but also being an adult, 27 years old," he says of his adjustment to the campus overlooking Lake Champlain.

Seeing many refugees arrive who don't know English or may have had no schooling, he's driven to help younger students find a path to college. "[I want to] inspire those kids from the inside out.... I'm poor and I have a lot of issues to overcome, but I strongly believe I can do it.... That's what makes me survive and go on every day, and that's what I want to give to those kids." (An audio slide show featuring Dushime is available at:

Maria: Breaking stereotypes

Maria Thach has lived in Burlington since she was a toddler, but her goals are shaped by her roots in the Vietnamese refugee community.

By high school, she knew she wanted to attend college and study criminal justice. Her family and other new refugees had been terrified by what should have been friendly encounters with police, "because of what they had encountered in Vietnam," she says, and she wants to help people understand "that law enforcement is there to help you, protect you."

The first in her family to apply to college, she found it stressful. Her parents had never learned English as well as she had and didn't understand the system. But her high school counselor told her about the scholarship at Champlain. "I had never heard of a scholarship like this before," she says.

While she is often the only Asian woman in her classes, she enjoys contributing something unique. "When we were discussing a topic like different government structures, I actually shared stories my father told me about the Vietnam government. A lot of people, from the war, have stereotypes ... but over the years [the country] has definitely changed.... They were like, 'Wow, I can understand now.' "

Hau: Finding courage to be an artist

For Hau "Howie" Le, the New American Student Scholarship means freedom to pursue a career in multimedia graphic design.

"As a kid, my parents told me, 'You don't get paid as an artist, so forget about it,' " he says. He dutifully started out with a criminal-justice major. After one semester, he had the confidence to follow his own dream. "With the scholarship, I realized I'm not going to be in debt that much after I graduate ... so I should still try."

Now he just has to prove he can succeed in college, defying the track record of some others in the Vietnamese refugee community, including his aunt, who have tried and dropped out.

Beyond academic opportunities, one of Mr. Le's favorite experiences was a volunteer trip last spring break to build Habitat for Humanity houses in New Orleans.

"That was life-changing," he says – even for his family, he hopes. "[They think,] 'We take care of the family, we don't need to worry about anything else.'... So I told them that I'm going to do this to prove that community service is important."

He showed his parents a movie he made about the trip. "They had no reaction on their faces ... but they told their friends what I did, and it sounded like they were proud of me."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.