Educated and underemployed: refugee student seeks second degree

Story and photos by DEVON ALEXANDER BROWN

Over 60,000 refugees have been resettled in Utah since the 1970s. Prior to the Trump administration, Utah’s designated voluntary agency affiliatesCatholic Community Services and the International Rescue Committee — were resettling roughly 1,200 refugees a year. While agencies do what they can with the resources they have, many refugees find the adage “it’s not what you know, but who you know,” continues ringing true.

Firas, a refugee from Iraq, has personal testimony of the value of networking. He resettled in Salt Lake in March 2014 by way of the IRC, but he has an uncle whom he lived with after resettling, and who continues to offer emotional and financial support.

Firas, who asked to have his surname withheld, holds a degree in civil engineering from a university in his native Iraq, but was dismayed when he found that using his professional training in the U.S would be difficult. The IRC helped him secure an entry-level position in the customer service sector a few months after arrival, but he felt unmotivated and underutilized by the position because of a desire to continue his profession.

“They [the IRC] will explain that it’s not going to be easy to go back to your job,” Firas said. “This is the general talk about this topic … it’s not going to be easy. Because you’re going to face different stuff, regardless of the language challenge.”

But after some time in Salt Lake, and while living with his uncle, Firas stumbled upon good fortune.

“My uncle is here so we met at the mosque and fortunately I met one of the refugees who came through the same process,” Firas said. “That guy actually was part of the NAAN program [New Academic American Network] … he was asking me what was my major, what did I do in my undergrad. He told me he just finished his master’s at the university which is how I learned ‘OK you actually can go back.’”

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The UNP main office. University Neighborhood Partners was created in 2001 to empower SLC’s westside residents. Many refugees are resettled on the west side of Salt Lake.

The New American Academic Network is a partnership facilitated by University Neighborhood Partners in conjunction with the University of Utah, the University of Utah International Center and the Department of Workforce Services. Because many refugees arrive without the means and proper credentials to work in their respective fields, the goal of the program is to empower refugees and immigrants through access to higher education. In Firas’ case he is working toward a master’s degree in structural design.

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The UNP Partnership Center opened in 2004 and brings together over 30 university partnerships and 20 local nonprofits.

Although he was able to enroll at the U through the network, he was forced to initially enroll as a non-matriculated student because he did not meet university requirements. Firas, like local students attending graduate school, was required to pass the Graduate Record Examination, but because his native language isn’t English he also had to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam. Although challenging, Firas passed both exams on his second attempt. He credits his time in customer service with accelerating his English fluency.

Partnerships like the New American Academic Network are essential for educated refugees looking to move beyond underemployment. The Academy of Hope, a fellow partnership facilitated through the U, offers no-cost certificates in professional management, web design and human resources management.

Claire Taylor, director of the Academy of Hope, says language, though a primary challenge, is but one of many obstacles refugees face on their path to higher education.

“A common challenge is not being able to afford the cost of certificate classes,” Taylor said in an email interview. “Another common challenge is carving out the time in their schedules to be able attend all of the classes.”

A relatively new program, the Academy of Hope saw one student enrolled in 2016, but Taylor says the 2017 Spring semester provided a cohort of students. So far seven participants have been refugees.

Thanks to the New American Academic Network, Firas is able to finish his master’s degree. Yet even with tuition assistance, he says it is not easy to support himself and complete his program and the engineering internship he is currently involved with.

“Fortunately my uncle is here and he supports me until now,” Firas said. “I was living with him at the beginning and he and his family helped me a lot. It’s difficult to have a place in a different culture, different society.”

Firas understands that case workers in the IRC are limited in their reach and ability to assist refugees on an extended individual basis. But he also thinks a more thorough and personalized approach in the early stages of resettlement would be beneficial — especially for refugees who are professionally trained.

Gerald Brown, assistant director of refugee services for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, is in agreement. He says his experience with refugees reflects a need for lengthier case management.

“Every new refugee needs case management for at least two years and I would argue for longer than that for many of them,” Brown said in a telephone interview. “It just to me makes common sense. A case manager helps a refugee kind of come up with a plan to meet their needs, to thrive in this community and then sort of follows the plan, helps them adjust over time, [and] gives them information when they need it.”

Although Firas hasn’t obtained his master’s degree yet, he is close and hopeful. And because of his personal good fortunes, Firas says he makes every effort to inform other refugees about lesser known resources that can help them get back on their professional footing.

“I’m still referring anybody who came as a refugee — who has a graduate or even non-graduate [degree],” Firas said. “Either go into community college or to the university … this is the option you have and how to go back to what you like.”

Going Beyond Test Scores

Story By MICHELLE JAMES

The Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence (SAGE) tests students’ proficiency in various areas and affects both students and teachers in schools throughout Utah, while they prepare for the test and as they process the test’s data.

The test assesses students’ knowledge in three areas; language arts, mathematics and science. Reports released from the data of the test show each grade at each school’s proficiency level.

In August, the Utah State Office of Education (USOE) released SAGE test scores from tests taken in 2014.

The data released tells teachers how proficient their students were in the different subjects, and shows what they need to work on.

Rose Park Elementary, in Salt Lake City school district, is a Title I school that had proficiency ratings of 25 percent in language arts, 34 percent in mathematics and 20 percent in science, according to data from USOE data gateway.

“For many reasons, SAGE scores do not always reflect what kids know or can do,” said Nicole Warren, the principle at Rose Park. She has been principle at Rose Park for five years. Warren said how factors like the students’ attitudes, anxiety and focus all can affect scores.

Thulasi Seshan worked with Rose Park as part of a University of Utah Honors class and during an internship last year. She has worked with classes from third to sixth grade.

“SAGE test scores don’t collect behavioral data or personal history,” said Seshan.

She said how these are the things that affect students’ ability to take the test, and their educational success. The test doesn’t show the context that it was taken in.

“So SAGE testing attempts to isolate the test from the context, but ultimately, you can’t succeed at that, and even if or when you do, your results immediately become meaningless,” said Seshan.

The test affects not only students, but also the teachers.

“It’s a stressful time of year,” said Warren. She said teachers get excited and watch for scores, waiting to see growth and proficiency levels.

At Rose Park, there is also the factor that 53.6 percent of the students are English language learners according to USOE data. Warren explained how English learners have various levels of proficiency with the language, and usually speaking and listening develop faster than reading and writing skills. She said this can lead people to think students have a better understanding of complex vocabulary than they do.

For limited English proficiency students in the school there was a 6.9 percent proficiency rate according to SAGE data from USOE, and for the whole state this rate is 8 percent.

Warren said they help prepare these students by giving them experience with the type of questions beforehand and reinforcing vocabulary used in the test. Some parts of the test are also read out loud.

While the test provides vocabulary challenges for English learner students, the SAGE test brought changes for other students. Utah changed from CRT to SAGE testing in 2013.

“SAGE increases rigor and expectations in all grades,” said Warren.

Students will need time to adjust to the new care standards that come with these new tests. Warren said, for example, kindergarten students will go through school with these new standards and when they get to higher grades will have been learning at that rigor for many years, unlike other students.

Warren said SAGE addresses science and social studies through language arts standards, and focuses on informational and analytic writing.

“The purpose of the new standards is to better prepare students to be college- and career-ready,” Warren said.

In a news release from USOE about 2014’s SAGE test score, Brad Smith, state superintendent of public instruction, said, “Our task now is to keep moving in the right direction until all Utah students are proficient in core subjects.”

Although the SAGE test is new, some people are already considering ending it.

In a Public Education Subcommittee hearing, Draper Senator Howard Stephenson said, “There will be legislation this year to create a task force to look at doing away with the SAGE test entirely.”

The programs that are a part of Rose Park work to help with student success, and in turn, SAGE test scores. Rose Park Elementary has Rose Park Academy, which Warren said is “unique in the district.” It’s an after-school program where the school can make its own budget. The program has around 150 students enrolled, and the students can choose their classes based on what they’re interested in.

Warren said the program is a safe place the students can stay after school with a staff that cares for them.

“It is like a family in many ways,” she said.

Another program is a grandparent program the school has where grandparents come into classrooms and help provide a “consistent adult” for the kids.

Other services the school has for its students are a mental health therapist, a health clinic for both students and members of the community and a full-time counselor. These resources help students miss less school.

Warren said how the school is also working on becoming a trauma-sensitive school to handle behavioral problems and learning concerns. Trauma-sensitive environments can help change negative behavior and help keep a student engaged in learning, she said.

Beyond the test scores are students and schools with many factors in their lives. The education of students goes beyond test score results, and involves many people and steps.

Seshan explained the moment when she can finally help a student make a connection.

“It’s magical,” she said.

University Neighborhood Partners aims to widen access to education for west side residents

University Neighborhood Partners, located on the west side of Salt Lake City, partners with 25 organizations across the Salt Lake Valley to provide access to education and services for residents of that community.

Story and photo by LAURA SCHMITZ

When Sarah Munro began her dissertation at the University of Michigan, she saw a need to bring access to education to minority communities.

After conducting research in Italy and receiving her Ph.D. in anthropology in 2002, she now works as the associate director of University Neighborhood Partners to make that need a reality.

As part of the president’s office at the University of Utah, UNP is “a bridge between the U and nonprofits on the west side,” Munro said.

UNP was launched in 2002 and acts as that bridge by creating partnerships under three main “umbrellas” — youth and education, community leadership and capacity building.

Serving two ZIP codes and seven neighborhoods on the west side of Salt Lake City, UNP currently boasts about 34 partnerships with 25 organizations. Munro admitted that monitoring the success of UNP is difficult, given that much of its work is seen only by the success of its partners.

“We’re always the convener,” Munro said. “We don’t actually do the work — we bring in community organizers to do the work.”

Munro collaborates with UNP staff in choosing organizations with which to partner. She said she and the seven to 10 staff members then maintain partnerships through ample communication and a positive attitude.

“We’re in constant communication,” Munro said of UNP and its partners. “We sit in both worlds and anticipate needs and goals.”

UNP works by building relationships with organizations that work with underrepresented populations, including refugees and undocumented immigrants. Munro said language, transportation and childcare are major hurdles west-side residents face in accessing basic freedoms, including education and healthcare.

“Our policy is we help anyone who comes to the table,” Munro said. “We don’t choose who we help, the organizations do. We simply create the table.”

According to 2010 census data, about 13 percent of Salt Lake City residents are Hispanic — a 78 percent increase from 2000 census data. As demographics continue to change in the United States, Utah and the Salt Lake Valley, Munro said institutions of higher education must adapt to prepare future students for college by widening access.

“A long-term goal is to move students from the west side to succeed, completing high school and coming to the U,” Munro said. “In 20 years, if the U can’t be more effective at this, it will no longer be the flagship university in the state.”

Rosemarie Hunter, director of UNP, was inspired to join hands with UNP after her time as a social worker. She was involved in the U’s College of Social Work for 16 years.

Hunter said education allows individuals to make choices and decisions from a place of knowledge.

“Education is a shared value across all communities and families,” she said. “Education really is power — anytime you can get access to education, you can take better care of yourself and your family.”

Hunter said UNP’s goal is not to try to jump in and “fix” everything, but to create a “mutual shared space” of learning between members of the west-side community and the U, allowing the U to change to support a more diverse population.

“What we look to do is go into existing places to (allow west-side residents) to interface with university life while going about their daily life,” Hunter said. “The U is learning a lot from residents and their cultural backgrounds and life experiences.”

Another UNP staff member, Brizia Ceja, began working for the organization as a freshman at the U as a student intern.

Originally from Mexico, Ceja moved to the U.S. at 13. She then grew up on the west side and still has family living there. She said she is therefore able to relate to that community on a personal level.

“I’m able to identify with most families I work with,” Ceja said. “I come from an immigrant family. I am the first person in my family to go to college.”

Ceja now works as an academic consultant for UNP to facilitate partnerships with middle and high schools. She said schools on the west side are often crowded with one academic adviser serving many.

“We want to start working with them young to make sure they don’t slip through the cracks,” Ceja said. “We want to make sure students have a safe place with (academic) mentors.”

Ceja said she wants children on the west side to view college as not only a possibility, but a natural progression after high school.

“I want them to know (college) is an option,” Ceja said. “Just like high school follows middle school, college follows high school.”

UNP has established partnerships with two elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools on the west side of Salt Lake City. The organization continues to foster relationships with these students to help prepare hundreds for a collegiate experience.