ASU program helps refugee communities navigate US educational system

Professor Eugene Judson awarded President's Medal for Social Embeddedness for program


Student filling out his resume at a workshop
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Wasim Mandou has four children, and like every parent, he wants the absolute best for them.

But as he smiles and extends his hand on a Saturday morning, he admits he doesn’t know how to go about building their future.

Mandou and his family, refugees from Syria, have been in the United States less than a year. Every day — and even the simplest things Americans take for granted — can be a challenge.

Navigating the educational system? Well, that can be overwhelming.

“I’m trying to know the best schools and find the right path for my children,” Mandou said through an interpreter.

On this Saturday morning, a few feet away, children play on one of the grass lawns at Arizona State University's West campus. In a few minutes, Mandou and about 40 other Syrian refugees will return to room 135 of the Sands Classroom Building. Across the way, in room 101, Somalis are learning about the Maricopa County Community College District and the opportunities to pursue a career in cybersecurity.

Both groups of refugees are taking advantage of an ASU program called “STEM and Social Capital: Advancing Families through Learning and Doing.”

The program, headed by Eugene Judson, a professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, helps refugee families make informed decisions about their children’s education, understand the courses and credits needed to go to college and discover what STEM careers — such as cybersecurity — might be available to them.

“I believe most people in the Phoenix area are not aware of the many international communities living right here in our own backyard, or that over the years, Arizona has been a very welcoming place for refugees from around the world,” said Judson, who, as the principal investigator on the project, received a President’s Medal for Social Embeddedness on Dec. 8.

MORE: Eugene Judson talks about the project and President's Medal | Learn about the other President’s Awards winners

“These communities don’t necessarily have much social capital when it comes to STEM careers, let alone figuring out how to get into college. It’s about learning how this American university system works and helping families where maybe no one has ever gone to college or even graduated the equivalent of high school," Judson said.

The idea for the program, which is funded by a $299,787 grant from the National Science Foundation, got its start 11 years ago when Judson and his daughter began volunteering with the Welcome to America project, delivering furniture to refugee families.

In 2018, during a volunteer day, Judson met Burundian community leaders who expressed that more support was needed; that refugee families and students needed the skills and encouragement to pursue a college education.

“One of the community leaders told me, ‘You know, some of our kids were born in refugee camps and they get a job at Papa John’s, and it’s more money than they’ve ever seen and they’re OK with that,’” Judson said. “But the community leaders were not OK with that.”

"STEM and Social Capital" began as a pilot program in 2021, working with 24 refugee families from Burundi. This year, with support from a second NSF grant, it has expanded to include families from the Congo, Syria and Somalia.

Inside room 135, questions are being asked:

“What is the meaning of class rank?”

“If you meet all these other requirements, do you get into college?”

“How much does it cost?”

In room 101, Glendale Community College Professor Martin Bencic is telling the 30-plus Somali refugees that nearly 800,000 cybersecurity jobs are available in the United States and can be had with an associate degree.

“You’re not going to make $100,000 a year right away but it will get your foot in the door,” Bencic said.

A few minutes later, Paradise Valley Community College Professor Ayad Saknee is stressing the importance of health benefits and social security.

“In our country, we don’t know about some of this stuff,” said Aiman Hesswany, who works with the Syrian Community Service Center in Phoenix. “The more they know this stuff, the better their future will be.”

Each parent has a yellow binder that is provided by Educational Outreach and Student Services and updated each week with materials from “WeGrad,” an educational outreach service provided by ASU. The Saturday sessions include topics such as setting goals, admissions and paying for college.

But Judson, along with the community leaders in the classroom, also challenges parents to become more involved with their children’s education.

Hesswany said refugee parents often are reluctant to ask for a meeting with their child’s teacher because of the language barrier.

“Many of the parents feel that at high school, they don’t know what’s going on, they can’t speak to anybody there and if they speak, they can’t express what they want. So they don’t get the right answer,” Hesswany said.

The community organizations involved with "STEM and Social Capital," like the Burundi-America Association for Humanity and Opportunities and the Syrian Community Service Center, are full partners in the project and key bridges between ASU and refugee communities. Leaders contribute to the project’s planning and execution, which includes recruiting families, identifying mentors from their communities, co-leading STEM-focused field trips to college campuses, translating documents and providing language interpretation.

Judson said one reason the program targets middle school and high schools students is that the children often become the “quasi-head of the household” because they are more versed in the English language.

“That’s a lot of pressure on someone who’s 14 or 15 years old,” he added.

Woman speaking to group in classroom

Former Congolese refugee and third-year accounting and business student Penina Fez Mto speaks along with a group of SPARKS ambassadors from Educational Outreach and Student Services at the STEM and Social Capital workshop on Oct. 29 in the Sands Classroom and Lecture Hall on ASU's West campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Penina Fez Mto, a third-year accounting and business student at ASU, experienced that pressure firsthand. Her Congolese family moved to America in June 2016 after spending 20 years at a refugee camp in Tanzania.

“When I got here, I didn’t have much help,” Fez Mto said. “I had to go out and do everything by myself. We’re also talking about moving from one continent to another, where the environment is very, very different. It’s not easy to adjust. You don’t how to get around, where to go to ask for things.

“I know one time we had an appointment at a hospital and it was only mile away, but we didn’t know how to get there, so we missed that appointment. It’s these small necessities that people need, but they’re not able to get there just due to the difference in culture, in the environment and the language.”

Those challenges are why Fez Mto has worked with "STEM and Social Capital" families during group activities, will serve as an e-mentor for three Congolese high school students and has become, Judson said, “a role model,” for other refugee children to follow.

“This program is so important,” Fez Mto said. “I’ve seen through my community that many kids don’t go past high school even after coming here. Many come with the dream of just having a better education or better life but because they don’t have the support they need, they feel like a minimum wage job is much easier than going through the process by themselves. So they just give up.

“That’s one of the biggest things we can do, having the parents aware of the process and how they can be involved for the better success of their kids.”

Part of the ASU Charter reads “measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed.”

The STEM and Social Capital program is aiming directly at that lofty goal.

“That’s one thing we all really like about this program,” Judson said. “There’s something really powerful about the parents and students in these families being there alongside of each other, figuring things out. It’s about the next generation, about doing whatever they can for these kids.”

Top photo: L. Faraja Madika (right), a senior at Cortez High School, joins others working on their resumés on Oct. 29 in the Sands Classroom and Lecture Hall on ASU's West campus as part in the "STEM and Social Capital: Advancing Families through Learning and Doing" program. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News