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From refugee to college degree: New U.S. citizens graduate with help from University of Utah

First Published      Last Updated Feb 17 2017 12:25 pm

U. of U. program affords foreign-born students opportunity to be productive U.S. citizens.

They came as refugees. They earned U.S. citizenship. And now they are about to graduate from the University of Utah and contribute to society.

Kai Sin, 22, spent 10 years in a refugee camp in northern Thailand after her family, which belongs to an ethnic minority, fled Myanmar. In May, she will graduate with a bachelor's degree in social health care policy.

Adhal Awan, 36, fled South Sudan's ongoing war and spent two years in Egypt before immigrating to the U.S. She will soon graduate in social work and may seek a master's degree. She has five children.

Bhagawat Acharya, 32, and his family fled ethnic cleansing in Bhutan and spent 17 years in a refugee camp in Nepal. He is a registered nurse and works part time at University Hospital, while seeking an advanced nursing degree. He will finish in December.

The trio said their success may not have been possible without the Refugee Program at the David Eccles School of Business. It serves all U. of U. students who arrived here as refugees. The program helps with books, tuition and housing.

When Sin graduates, she plans to spend two years in the Thailand camp teaching refugees how to stay healthy.

"They have nothing to promote health care," she said.

Awan wants to put her social work skills to work in Salt Lake City's Sudanese community.

"I would like to help the refugee community become empowered," she said. "Especially when it comes to women — to teach them to be strong and get educated."

Acharya will continue to pursue nursing here in Salt Lake City.

"I am amazed at the help of the Utah community," he said. "So I want to stay here and help this community."

Three years ago, the Refugee Education Initiative began offering scholarships to refugee students. The Initiative is underwritten by real estate magnate Roger Boyer, and he partnered with the David Eccles School of Business in October 2016 to provide more targeted support to refugee students at the U. of U., said Refugee Program Director Michelle Conley.

The initiative, recently incorporated into the U.'s refugee program, provides counseling and tutoring, as well as support, such as dental care, vision care and mental health care. Many students who have fled war-torn countries have never visited a dentist or had an eye exam, said U. of U. spokeswoman Sheena McFarland.

The goal of the program and the initiative is to help students graduate with a university degree and find jobs, Conley said.

It includes 92 students who come from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan. They speak more than 36 languages, and their average GPA is 3.2.

"The benefit these students make to society can't be overestimated," Conley said. "Supporting them as they work to further their education is particularly impactful because the effects of their success reverberate throughout the community."

The refugees who have come through difficult circumstances are resilient and motivated.

"The students here are about to graduate — that's incredible," she said. "They are the future leaders of their communities."

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