Bringing students from around the world to Bloomington to study, research, and engage in IU’s community is a core function of the Office of International Services (OIS) at Indiana University, and one that it has spent decades developing expertise in. Guiding students and scholars through the complex, often changing network of requirements to maintain their visas; translating credits from wildly different academic systems while ensuring applicants are prepared for the rigor of IU’s coursework; helping students from over 140 different countries adjust to a new culture, language, and community: this is what OIS does.
But what happens when there are no academic transcripts because the issuing institution has crumbled under missile strikes? When diplomas were left behind in a hasty journey across borders to protect lives? When the networks of support a student relies on are scattered around the world at the whims of geopolitical negotiations?
This is the reality of bringing students to Indiana University who are displaced from their home countries, and where the IU Refugee Task Force comes in.
Understanding the challenges
The terms “refugee” and “asylee” refer to the legal status of a person who, for safety or political reasons, cannot return to their home, but that designation is only recorded by border officials. The reality of quantifying forcibly displaced populations is much more complex. With high-profile wars and political turmoil breaking out in places like Ukraine and Afghanistan, natural disasters making entire regions unsafe, and ongoing conflicts not abating, the UN Human Rights Campaign estimates the total global population of forcibly displaced people to be over 103 million, the highest ever recorded.
Among those millions are intelligent, talented individuals seeking to advance their educations in ways their home countries no longer provide. Their stories and experiences are unique, both individually and as a group, and their paths to Indiana University do not follow any single prescribed trail. Potential students may hold passports from other countries, but because of their displacement may not be classified as international students. Often, they lack the ability to prove their credentials in traditional ways, have experienced tremendous trauma, and may not have access to any financial backing.
The challenges of hosting displaced students at IU is nothing new to OIS. For decades, staff within International Services have been building connections between departments, local agencies, and government officials to assist potential students who don’t yet have the more common student visas needed to attend IU, on an individual, ad hoc basis. The intercultural competency and global engagement inherent to their work made them an essential part of the network of support for students, even before a committee was put together.
A formal network of support
In October 2021, that network was officially formalized when the IU Refugee Task Force—led by OIS—was established. Its members strive to address all the issues a “not-quite-international” student would need to navigate to successfully join IU’s academic body. The Refugee Task Force coordinated with other U.S. higher education organizations who had experience in refugee support like the Institute for International Education (IIE), and the President’s Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. The committee then identified representatives across international and domestic admissions, enrollment management, Counseling and Psychological Services, housing, local service groups like Exodus Refugee, and select faculty experts. After looking at the models of existing support and examining structures already in place at IU, the true work began, with members attended a training on typical refugee needs, intercultural issues, and resources, including ways to effectively coordinate across the campus and community.
Rendy Schrader, senior director of student and scholar programs & initiatives and one of the original proposal writers, recalls the challenges of the early days, “The biggest problem was actually identifying who [our displaced students] were and finding them throughout the system. We had some experience in finding students who didn’t match our Student Information System (SIS) coding because of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and we knew we had some second-generation students. But who were the ones that somehow managed to get here on their own? And what was that process like for them? What kind of help did they need?”
Once a small list of existing students was identified, OIS and the Refugee Task Force began connecting those students to resources. Through conversation with experts and their own experiences, the Task Force quickly identified a series of common needs like assistance with airport transfers, finding housing, banking support, and orientation to the community. Often students have spent years without stable housing, have families of their own who need childcare, and might need more support in English language proficiency.
The scope and scale of experiences that many prospective displaced students arrive with are beyond the imaginations of many staff. From the start, the Task Force strove to empower students to succeed with a holistic view of who they are as unique individuals. In the initial proposal they prioritized “the ethical protection and educational support of refugees seeking access to higher education within Indiana.” Additionally, they affirmed that, “as is the case with the DACA population on-campus, providing student services through an intercultural lens of empathy, care, and patience is essential.”
This focus on humanizing the process is not lost on the students the Task Force supports. One recipient shared about their experience, “Since the day I joined IU, your continued support is the one thing I can always rely on. You showed me patience, guided, and motivated me whenever the circumstance occurred. Thanks for supporting me wholeheartedly… I want to appreciate you from the depths of my heart, despite the fact that it is not enough.”
But the impact of the Task Force—and the students it supports—extends far beyond the individuals themselves.
Dr. Beth Lewis Samuelson has extensive experience as an international student who grew up in what was then called Zaire, as well as teaching diverse student groups in her Literacy, Culture, and Language Education courses today. The impact of displaced and refugee students in her classrooms not only affects the students, but the faculty and the research as well.
She recalled one experience with a PhD student in the School of Education who she worked with closely. At first, the student struggled expressing themselves while learning English and adapting to a new community. Based on those early interactions, a colleague expressed doubts as to whether the student was up to the rigorous standards of IU. Dr. Lewis Samuelson encouraged the colleague to look beyond the English language proficiency barriers to see the analytical and technical skills that lay beneath, and the student persisted in their education. Years later, that student proposed their dissertation to the faculty member who had initially doubted their ability. He returned to Lewis Samuelsson with a new perspective, starting with him noting,
She credits her colleague for being willing to change his mind and see beyond the early learning gaffes to the skills and knowledge beyond, something she sees as instrumental in young educators’ lives. After all, regardless of how extensive a future teacher’s education might be, they will still be confronted with students whose experiences, backgrounds and knowledge bases are vastly different from their own. Being able to understand and connect with those students—who might themselves be one of the 10,000 refugees resettled in Indiana since 2012—makes them stronger educators.
“Doing group work with these [displaced and refugee graduate] students, interacting with them, talking to them, learning from them gives the students who are interacting with them a better sense of what it means to be ‘smart,’ and I think our students need to be able to see that there are lots of ways of learning and being in the world and showing excellence,” Lewis Samuelson concluded.
But experience with the Task Force is not limited to Dr. Lewis Samuelson’s class. The Masters of Public Affairs Program in the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs has a number of Task Force-supported students. Director Michele Lersch shares a similar perspective. “It has been a privilege to work with our students and assist them in attaining their educational goals… These students have overcome immense obstacles to be a part of the IU and O’Neill community, and their unique life experiences provide incredible perspectives for the school.”
When asked what her advice would be for other departments considering the applications of displaced students, her response was enthusiastic, “They should absolutely consider these students for admission into their programs. Their backgrounds and experiences will make them valuable members of your student community.”
Beyond our campuses
The positive effect of including displaced students in the classroom is undeniable, but the impact extends to everyone involved in the Task Force. Rendy Schrader shared what motivates her to continue in this challenging work.
“We are literally changing lives. One could argue anytime someone gets a higher ed degree it changes their lives, but we’re bringing these people out of horrible conditions and giving them a chance to reset and restart, and you see it every day: they’re so grateful and they are contributing to [our community]—I mean the speed with which they give back is incredible!”
The students themselves agree. Nahid Sharifi, a student supported by the Task Force, specifically requested to not be anonymous because she wanted to share the impact the support she received had on her life. In addition to expressing gratitude for the opportunity and financial support that a fellowship provided her, she made the case for supporting more students like her, and it all returns to giving back.
“Investing in our education can also provide motivation and a sense of accountability for us. It helps us work harder to achieve our goals. With the help of the Task Force, we are motivated to give back to the community and help others in the future, creating a ripple effect of positive impact,” she shared.
Sharifi’s professors see that motivation in their classrooms. IU Bicentennial Professor Serafín M. Coronel-Molina works with Sharifi in her Theoretical Issues in the Study of Languages & Literacies course. “Nahid is an outstanding, energetic, talented, and tenacious doctoral student. All the experiences and maturity Nahid brings to class are impressive and invaluable.” Despite the rigor and complexity of the theoretical course, Colonel-Molina was most impressed not by Sharifi’s academic prowess, but by the woman herself.
“Nahid is also reliable, helpful, responsible, sensitive, and understanding. All these qualities make her a good human being in the broadest sense of the word. I am delighted to have Nahid in my class.”
The future of IU’s Refugee Task Force
There are officially 34 students currently supported by the Task Force at IU, but the number of displaced students across campus is likely far greater. Schrader still regularly discovers in conversation with current students that their friends or former colleagues are attending IU and similarly stateless but weren’t identified in the system as potential refugees. In addition to supporting the social and logistical needs of these students, financial support remains a challenge. Of the 34 students officially identified, about half receive no financial support, and the ones who do often only have funding for their first year of study. While students here on refugee or asylee visas can sometimes qualify for federal student aid, others who entered on student visas cannot, leaving them without access to the most widely known financial assistance programs. This means that alongside mourning the future their home country no longer offers, adapting to a new culture, adjusting to foreign academic and social systems, and excelling in their coursework, students are tasked with finding funding for their future studies.
The path to becoming a refugee or asylee in the United States is not easy and requires navigating a complex application process. A student could enter on a limited Humanitarian Parole period that lasts for a short period of time, or even as an F-1 international student. Delays, mistakes, or misunderstandings can very easily result in a denied asylum or refugee case, which would also bar the students from continuing their studies. The regulations are intricate, and though OIS often helps coordinate legal aid for students as they navigate the nonstandard immigration process, it is a stressful experience for everyone. Because of these challenges, the IU Refugee Task Force is fine-tuning their processes on the Bloomington campus, and primarily supporting students who originate from Afghanistan and Ukraine—for now.
It is Schrader’s dream to expand both the diversity of the students and the campuses supported by the Task Force—a dream the students themselves share. For Sharifi, expanding the program is personal: “I really appreciate Task Force [working] to help me to get my husband into IU, giving me a chance to meet him in-person after almost 3 years.”
Sharifi adds almost, casually, “He is really interested in studying at IU.” With the support of the Task Force, donors, and the IU community, perhaps soon Sharifi and Schrader’s dreams will soon become reality.
Looking for ways to support the IU Refugee Task Force and learn more?
Persons interested in supporting displaced students currently on IU Bloomington’s campus can make donations to the Eugene Chen Eoyang Displaced Individuals Scholarship fund.
Bloomington students can support students and families through the student organization Seeking Refuge.
Exodus Refugee, a community organization, supports students and refugee communities across Indiana.
IU Refugee Task Force co-chair Elizabeth Dunn directs the Center for Refugee Studies, providing an academic understanding and structural approach to support and activism. She is currently in Poland teaching and studying the humanitarian response to the war in Ukraine.
To learn more about the resources for displaced students at IU, visit refugee.iu.edu. IU Departments or individuals interested in learning more and supporting IU Refugee Task Force endeavors directly can contact Rendy Schrader email@example.com