Rebecca Hill

Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS)
New Haven, CT

Despite the seismic changes occurring in US immigration policy, the numbers of refugees, special visa holders, and deferred-action immigrants seeking higher education in this country will continue to grow in the coming decades. This population faces unique challenges in both college admission and retention. In my summer internship at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven, CT, I first worked with the Education Coordinator to identify three groups of prospective students in their client pool: high school students entering college for the first time, young adults with some post-secondary training or coursework, and adults needing to certify their credentials in the US.

In order to address these groups’ individual needs, in collaboration with other IRIS staff, I hosted informational sessions for teens in the Youth Leadership Group regarding college preparation. I met with their high school counselors to determine what information or assistance the students would need the most, given the limitations of public school college and career personnel. I planned workshops that would target specific populations (i.e., women who are family caregivers during the day but work at night) to strategize how best to learn English and re-enter the profession they had in their home countries given the stress on their schedules. Since complete economic independence is expected of refugees six months after arrival, they often take starter jobs well beneath their qualification and earning threshold. To prevent these positions from becoming lifelong crutches, I drafted long-term education plans with clients, including recertification and booster classes. Mostly, I worked one-on-one with clients to help them complete forms, write essays, research and select appropriate programs, and otherwise navigate the admissions process.

To facilitate increased admissions and retention support from the campus’ end, I created a press packet for admissions offices and met personally with staff from local institutions (Yale, Quinnipiac, Albertus Magnus, Lyme Art Academy, Southern Connecticut State University, Gateway Community College, and the University of New Haven). We discussed ways in which IRIS clients might have an alternate but equitable application experience given their unique circumstances. For instance, some have been in the US for less than a year and thus have no tax record, making FAFSA completion impossible. Others’ abilities may not be accurately reflected on standardized tests because their home countries’ assessment methods have never included multiple-choice responses. While many of these ideas are still in the discussion stage, starting this year, Yale University has offered a full scholarship to qualified refugee students in their summer bridge program. I also accompanied students to campus support offices (ethnic and identity offices, mental health, academic tutoring, etc.) when they felt uncomfortable visiting alone; in addition, I introduced them to “point people” on campus to foster a sense of independence and self-advocacy if future issues should occur.

Because attaining an education is inextricably linked to other facets of a refugee’s life (English-language learning, housing, employment, documentation), I frequently consulted with IRIS social work and legal personnel, helping them build and integrate institutional memory of higher education strategic plan across departments. Since I am a visiting Beinecke Fellow at Yale University this academic year, I still volunteer at the organization a five hours a week, co-teaching an Arabic class for office staff and “cultural companions,” as well as consulting on more complicated cases. I invited IRIS clients to come to the Beinecke when I gave a lecture on a Syrian-origin manuscript to bring them into the intellectual community that is concerned with their cultural heritage. As a result of this internship, several dozen new arrivals to America feel like valued residents of New Haven and more in control of their self-development. As a future professor or advocate, I am all the more sensitive to the nuanced issues that serve as barriers to higher education attainment for these populations.