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Collaboration is critical but complicated to address refugee education

With high demand for refugee education, institutions must learn to collaborate.
September 29, 2022

Experts say that silos in higher ed must be broken down to solve problem

Educating refugees is a sprawling, complex mission that requires a difficult level of collaboration, according to several experts who spoke on a panel sponsored by Arizona State University.

“This is urgent,” said Julie Kasper, director of teacher learning and leadership for the Refugee Education Academy at Childhood Education International, who moderated the panel discussion.

“There are lives in the balance, and this has to happen now.”

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the number of people who have been forced to flee their homes due to conflicts, violence, fear of persecution and human rights violations was nearly 90 million.

The virtual webinar, titled “Collaboration and Ecosystem Approaches to Refugee Education,” was sponsored by the Office of Global Engagement at ASU's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, in partnership with Childhood Education International.

Among the panel experts was Adnan Turan, a PhD student in the teachers college who is Kurdish. He was a refugee with his family, fleeing to Turkey, and later worked with Syrian and Iraqi refugees. He researches how nongovernment organizations, such as nonprofits, affect the assimilation of refugees.

“At many points I found that NGOs abuse this power to use political discourse and political power to change the cultural connections of migrant groups. NGOs follow political power,” he said.

“Migrant or refugee education is more complicated than we thought, from my experience in Turkey. None of the authorities want to take responsibility at this point.”

Turan said there are too many NGOs with differing missions.

“The field is like a dust storm. The roles are not defined,” he said.

A virtual webinar — sponsored by the Office of Global Engagement at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and Childhood Education International and the Center for Professional Learning — featured (clockwise from top left) moderator Julie Kasper, director of teacher learning and leadership, Refugee Education Academy, Childhood Education International; Amlata Parsaud, of Childhood Education International; Miriam Feldblum of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration; and Adnan Turan, doctoral student in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Screenshot by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Miriam Feldblum, co-founder and executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, also was on the panel. She researched immigration and citizenship policy and had been a university administrator before launching the alliance.

“As we all know these are not new issues,” she said. “They did not start in the previous administration and won’t be resolved in current moment. But everyone has a role to play, including what the campus leaders are doing.”

Amlata Parsaud, a leadership practice area lead with Childhood Education International, researches collaboration – a complicated concept.

“When I was undertaking my dissertation research, the foremost researchers on collaboration advise you not to do it because it’s so complex and riddled with problems,” she said.

She said the focus should be on building specific collaboration skills.

“Diplomacy, communication — you have to have common goals, a shared vision. Another layer is having trust and relationships,” she said.

“And we’re working in a context where trust has been broken. Collaboration can mask asymmetrical power dynamics.”

Among the points made by the panel:

  • There are differences among groups of students that need to be discerned. International students have to promise they will return to their home countries but often see their educational journey as a chance to immigrate. Refugee students potentially have a pathway to resettlement. Different still are undocumented students, who have lived almost their entire lives in the U.S. But these distinctions can be abused to assign more political power to some groups over others.
  • Education for refugees can be formal schooling but also non-formal. “Is it a camp situation, introductory classes, early childhood or adult education?” Parsaud said. Pinning it down can be tricky.
  • Well-meaning policies can have unintended consequences. Turan said that Turkey opened its public education system to refugees, but required certification from the students’ home countries. “But many refugees have problematic relationships to their home countries. Calling the embassy could be a problem,” he said. Sweden mandated that refugee children should be taught in their home language, but it found an implantation gap when there were not enough teachers who could do it.
  • Implementation of policies often falls to teachers, who may not be equipped to carry them out, lacking skills, resources, support or adequate pay.
  • Refugees need to be part of the conversation. Feldblum said that the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration includes refugee student input — and pays them for their work. “It needs to be without unduly burdening them — that emotional labor,” she said. Turan said that it’s difficult to have refugee input at an academic expert level because only 3% of the world’s refugees have access to higher education and few of the degree programs offered are in social sciences.
  • Education of young children is extremely difficult immediately after the trauma of fleeing. Turan said he worked with children who had fled Syria. “Their bodies were there, but their minds were across the border, with their families,” he said.
  • The pandemic revealed that educational systems across the globe were not prepared and not resilient. And while online education is a viable option, lack of access to the internet and to devices are huge barriers.

Feldblum expects action soon from the Biden administration, which has indicated support for a new category of refugees — P4, for private sponsorship. The action would not require congressional support.

“The president, in the most recent report, actually called out specifically college and university sponsorship of refugee students,” she said.

“This is a game changer. This goes to where a policy change can then enable hundreds, and I hope thousands, of refugee students coming to the U.S. every year to pursue their education and, if they want, have a resettlement pathway.”

The webinar was the first in a series sponsored by Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. “Belonging for Refugee and Immigrant Students and Families” will be on Oct. 19, and “Social Emotional Learning and Well-being: Cornerstones of Refugee/(Im)migrant Education” will be Nov. 15.

Top image of a refugee camp in Syria by iStock/Getty Images

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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$34.6M investment in ASU to help create reliable internet access and training for the region

September 29, 2022

Funding makes ASU home to the largest university-led digital equity initiative in the country

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 year in review.

Like food, clothing and shelter, the internet has become a basic need. Today, access is a determining factor for quality of life as it connects people to vital health care, learning experiences and work opportunities.

Yet, across Arizona, reliable access to high-speed broadband remains unequal. In Maricopa County, some neighborhoods report as many as 70% of residents are still without adequate internet performance needed for remote work, downloading homework or streaming.

Arizona State University is leading an effort to bridge this divide. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors recently voted unanimously to provide ASU and its collaborators $34.6 million through 2026 to advance broadband, community support, equipment and training across Maricopa County, which includes the metro Phoenix area.

The funding makes ASU home to the largest university-led digital equity initiative in the country. ASU Enterprise TechnologySun Corridor Network and the 501(c)(3) Digital Equity Institute will lead the effort along with hundreds of faculty, students and staff to bolster digital proficiency and distribute internet-connected devices to those in need.

"The idea of providing access at scale is embedded in the ASU Charter,” said Chris Howard, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the ASU Public Enterprise, which aims to design, build and oversee a new model for a national university. “Our digital equity agreement with Maricopa County signifies that as a public enterprise our commitment extends well beyond ASU's physical locations."

Mary Haddad, an ASU undergraduate student, shared at an ASU Town Hall her vision for the future where the internet is readily accessible for all: “In an ideal future, we are providing training, online tools and resources, making sure that we are continuously available if they need help and support.”

Partnering for social impact

It took an agile collaboration between government, education, community and industry to get to the point of funding. When the White House administration announced the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package, broadband was featured prominently on the national solutions agenda. 

Seeing the opportunity and the need, a group of regional partners sprung into action.

A broadband task force convened under the umbrella of The Connective, Greater Phoenix’s smart region consortium and an initiative of the Partnership for Economic Innovation. The group consisted of government officials, Maricopa County and a technical advisory team led by ASU and the Digital Equity Institute.

“Through the broadband task force, we have an opportunity to build a region where every person is a fully engaged and active participant in shaping the future of the community in which they live,” said Chris Camacho, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, a task force member and a board member of the Partnership for Economic Innovation. 

The nearly $35 million in funding to ASU comes through the American Rescue Plan package, awarded by Maricopa County. 

“It is only through a collaborative partnership and proactive leadership that we will begin to address these structural barriers at a regionwide level to ensure the digital economy reaches all Greater Phoenix households,” said Bill Gates, Maricopa County Board of Supervisors chairperson.

Moving forward, collaboration will remain at the center. ASU Enterprise Technology, Sun Corridor Network and the Digital Equity Institute will partner to connect community anchor institutions, such as schools, health clinics and other neighborhood assets, and provide educational programs that support communities’ journeys from digital inequity to full participation. 

Work is aready underway to build a better connected community 

Recent broadband installation pilots with Phoenix’s Isaac School District, led by ASU’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions and Enterprise Technology, already revealed positive impacts from improving access in K–12. Now, the implications of this latest funding allocation reach every facet of learning, working and thriving. 

“The Digital Equity Institute is committed to taking a holistic approach to leveling the playing field,” said Erin Carr-Jordan, managing director of the Digital Equity Institute. “Through meaningful collaboration, we can amplify the voices of disadvantaged communities and provide people with access to the knowledge, skills and support needed to fully participate in every aspect of society, democracy and the economy.” 

ASU is already analyzing the data and preparing the geographic maps as the basis for the forthcoming broadband installations.

“We must know where the gaps in service are, and this granular level of data will help us scale to serve more of our communities,” said Lev Gonick, chief information officer at ASU. “We want to make sure that the resources allocated to solving this pervasive, systemic challenge are directed to where they are most needed."

This Monday, Oct. 3, marks the first Arizona Digital Inclusion Celebration Summit, hosted by the Digital Equity Institute and ASU’s ShapingEDU — free and open to all.

Gates, from the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, will kick off the event by sharing the current and future state of digital equity. Government officials, broadband experts, digital literacy champions and other key groups will detail what the community needs to know — and what comes next.

Written by Samantha Becker. For media inquiries, please contact Annie Davis,