Global Crisis, Global Solutions: Moving the Needle on Education for Displaced Students

For three days and two nights in the summer of 2005, nine-year-old Shabnam Fayyaz and her family rode in a truck from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Fayyaz recalls sitting with her two older brothers at the back of the open truck with all their belongings – with the vivid traditional Pakistani art that adorned the truck, the sound of the wheels hitting gravel on the road, the flying dust clouding the sky, and the mountains passing by in a blur.

Fayyaz and her family had been living in Quetta, Pakistan as refugees since 1996, after fleeing Afghanistan as the Taliban came to power. 

“When my father heard that they were opening schools for girls in Kabul, he wanted to go back, he wanted his daughters to be educated as well as his sons,” says Fayyaz. “Women’s rights and education were very important to him, and he encouraged us to follow our dreams.”

Today, Fayyaz is pursuing a master’s degree in human rights with a focus on refugee rights and women’s rights at Columbia University. In 2020, she received the Columbia University Scholarship for Displaced Students (CUSDS) -- a first of its kind Columbia-wide scholarship that offers full funding to refugees and displaced students from across the world. 

The CUSDS program launched in December 2019 and is administered by the Columbia Global Centers, which are a network of global hubs that create opportunities in research, scholarship, teaching, and service in nine international locations. Columbia University has committed up to $6 million in support for up to 30 displaced students every year. The scholarship covers the students’ tuition, as well as housing and living assistance while they pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees across all 18 of Columbia’s schools and affiliates.

Fayyaz is one of 18 students in the 2019-2020 cohort – the inaugural class of the program.

“I remind myself every day what an incredible opportunity this is and how lucky I am to be here in New York, running in Central Park, being surrounded by students who are so smart and from all over the world,” says Fayyaz. “I don’t want to take any of this for granted, and I want to give back to the community.” 

Linda Amrou, Program Officer at Columbia University Global Centers (and IFYC alumna), was an integral part of the team that designed and launched the CUSDS program. In conversation with IFYC, she shares the behind-the-scenes of the program, the application process, and how she envisions the program impacting higher education. 


Where did the idea for this program come from? 

The Columbia Business School had started a pilot program specifically for Syrian refugees. They had a small but successful cohort. Since our Global Centers are known for being a hub for Columbia's global work, they approached us asking to build upon the success of the pilot program while keeping the integrity of the initial intent. 

We not only took on the program but also expanded it to the unprecedented program that it is today. For the first time in Columbia's history, at least one scholarship slot was going to be afforded at every single Columbia school and affiliate. No matter what school a student wanted to apply to, they’d be eligible for CUSDS scholarship consideration if admitted. The scholarship includes both tuition and cost of living because our team understands that New York is an expensive place and another barrier to entry for deserving students. Some students could not even afford the application fee for the school and so we created an application fee waiver process for those in need. We have really tried to minimize any barriers to entry for access to education as possible for what we know is one of the world’s most vulnerable populations. 

What was the initial response to the launch of the program?

It was overwhelming in the best way. The scholarship is open to refugees, asylees, and those with temporary protected status from or living anywhere in the world. We got over 1,100 applications from all over the world. It was a very competitive process. Each student not only had to apply to the scholarship program but also apply to a specific program at Columbia University and be accepted in order to be eligible for the scholarship. 

Despite all the hurdles of the pandemic, we were able to welcome 18 brilliant students, which was incredible. These are students of the highest caliber both personally and professionally. They are extremely ambitious, intelligent, and intentional world citizens. People who are not only interested in furthering their education, which they would have done had their education not been disrupted by displacement, but also individuals who are invested in their communities and in promoting a just and greater good in their societies. 

The inaugural class got their admissions right in the middle of the pandemic. How did that affect the program and their experience? 

We realized very quickly that Fall 2020 was going to be different than we had anticipated. We wanted to have the students all on campus in order to facilitate providing them with supplemental programs and housing near one another. We wanted them to have the companionship and camaraderie a cohort or a program can provide but we had to be creative and pivot our modality of doing so. 

We decided instead to really focus on their unique, immediate needs as we faced a global crisis. Our team spent all of 2020 making sure that they were well situated no matter where they were in the world. A lot of our students were not in New York or in a New York time zone -- meaning that they were facing one of the biggest challenges that higher education is currently facing with international students – isolation and time zone management. We did some of the work, but they really took the reins on it as well. They leaned on one another and connected across borders and challenges through their shared experiences during this unique time in history. If anything, it brought us all closer as we became a global family.

What impact has the program made in the Columbia community already? 

I'm the proud daughter of immigrants and am very personally invested in the success of this program. I feel that there is no greater key to creating a better world than through education, whatever education may look like. My contribution has been through higher education but others can meaningfully contribute through providing opportunities through skills training and career opportunities. 

For me the reality of the macro impact we are making has come through our students sharing their inspirational stories and garnering the interest of major news outlets like the Washington Post, ABC News, Good Morning America, and CNN as well as the equally as important micro-campus level impact we learn about when professors email our team to share how a CUSDS student changed the dynamic of their classroom for the better. We have a student who is writing a book about his experiences and is dedicating a whole chapter to how the scholarship changed the course of his life. Most of our students have become ambassadors who feel inspired to mentor new applicants through the power of their own stories. The enthusiasm about the program has spread like wildfire further solidifying the great need for a program like CUSDS.

Their stories and their kaleidoscope of experiences bring such integral perspectives to the classrooms that were absent before. Without them, we would have an echo chamber within academia and their respective fields. As much as the students need this opportunity, Columbia needs them too. Columbia needs their intelligence, their grit, their perspective, all that they have to offer just being who they are. This program is truly a symbiotic relationship. It's not one-directional, it's not obligatory -- it is something that is as generative for the institution as it is for those we serve. 

What goals do you have for this program in the future? How do you envision it impacting the field of higher education? 

One of our goals for the scholarship is to inspire other higher education institutions to do the same. We're building up the framework for other institutions to follow suit so as to hopefully provide these opportunities to their potential students as well. It is our hope that academia will think critically about what they're doing to move the needle on the dire and pressing issues surrounding forced migration. 

Another goal is to make sure these programs are about helping students as a whole person. It is not just about providing an opportunity, but also really giving students the tools for success, bringing them together as a cohort, and connecting them with the right people and services so that they can be successful both while they're at the university and afterward in their careers. CUSDS aims to create holistic programs that serve the whole person while exponentially growing the future trajectory of this program around the world. 

Real change, real empathy, real understanding, and real progress come from having real diversity in the room. “Displaced people” are not all the same. They do not all have the same type of backstories. They are also more than a label or proverbial designation. Learning to celebrate the person as a whole is extremely important and it is only possible when you create the space in that room with the opportunity for them to come as their whole selves. It is not enough to provide a seat at the table. What we have learned and what this program provides is access to the microphone and the opportunity to have these incredible students bring and represent their full, expressed selves. 


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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.