Thursday, July 8, 2010

Refugees and higer education -part four

In this essay, I will talk briefly about the non-academic preparation that is required to prepare some refugees for college in the United States or similiar countries. I am consciously choosing to place it in the section on getting refugees a GED. My assumption is that if a refugee has acquired a high school degree or even college elsewhere then he is much more likely than otherwise to be prepared in other ways too for study at higher levels in the USA.

Of course, this is not always the case.

For instance, I have been told that the refugee camp schools that Karen and other refugees from Burma study in in Thailand are much better than the educational resources in Burma, particularly in the Karen state. This does not mean however that one can take a Karen refugee who has spent a considerable portion of his life in a refugee camp and drop him or her into a college in the USA and not expect some interesting complications to take place. The culture and experience gap is huge between a 21 year old Karen refugee and a 19 year old American classmate even if they are placed side by side in the same classroom.

So what needs to be considered:
1. Language

Schools in the USA are generally taught in English. Students need to have a high level of English to do well. Many schools do offer ESL courses of various kinds, but the students still need to be highly skilled in English before they can do regular coursework. Additionally it needs to be understood that most ESL professionals divide English proficiency into two levels, social proficiency and academic proficiency. Just because someone's English is good enough for them to hold a job, make friends and hang out does not mean that their English is good enough for them to be able to read biology textbooks and write footnoted history papers. They need ESL training or other opportunities to improve their English and lots of them.

You need to encourage them to read and read in English. Some will do this easily. Others need prodding. Use your imagination in getting them to read. In one case, I actually helped a refugee fill out and subscribe to Playboy magazine simply because I thought it would get him reading. I made him promise to actually read the articles and I know he did in at least some cases. Many refugees are Christians and read the Bible. In such cases, I would suggest strongly that they be given or helped to acquire a copy of the Bible that is in modern English similiar to that they will encounter. (At least one local fundamentalist church popular with refugees insists on using the King James Version. Personally, I think this is stupid.)

There are tools to assess a person's English language ability. The TOEFL exam is one such tool. There are TOEFL study guides in your library.

2. Culture

This should go without saying. Refugees need to have some idea of how to live and function in a college setting if one plans to place them in it. They need some training in socialization and how to meet and greet and carry on small talk conversations in our culture. They also need some instructions on how to deal with problems. Try to teach them how to handle disputes and problems. They may occur and it is in everyone's best interest to have them able to handle serious conflicts in a societally approved manner should they occur.

Make them aware of resources and how to utilize them and choose among them.

BTW, should anyone wonder, what's the strangest thing I've seen a refugee in a classroom setting do?

Take his shirt off in the middle of an ESL class. It was hot, he was tired, he'd been working hard and the next thing people knew he started to take his shirt off and was soon sitting there, barechested, in the middle of his ESL classroom with people looking at him. Be prepared. Try to teach them how to act in the settings they will be in.

Clearly some refugee cultures will have a greater cultural difference than others in terms of adaptation to Western college life.

It also needs to be mentioned that many refugees, including many members of the Burmese hill-tribes, are basically indigenous people. Until relatively recently in terms of global history, their societies were illiterate, tradition-based, subsistence farming and hunting and gathering cultures marked by clan feuds and a relatively low level of government. This means that when it comes time for them to adjust to the expectations of the college environment they may have considerable difficulty.

Think in terms of indigenous people. Use such things as the situation and experiences of peoples like Australian aboriginals, Taiwanese indigenous peoples and the Native American Indian peoples of the United States, Canada and elsewhere to seek lessons and predict problems. [For statistics on Australian aboriginal education see: 4704.0 - The Health and Welfare of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, 2010 EDUCATION: EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT. For Native American Education in the United States see: Status and Trends in the Education of American Indians and Alaska Natives: 2008

These people have a much lower than average rate of educational success. Societal prejudice can, at best, provide only a partial explanation for this. A fuller understanding of this problem must take into account that many indigineous people have very different attitudes to many things than the mainstream industrialized cultures that they often live among and must interact with and whose expectations must be met in order to succeed at obtaining a degree in a higher institution.

For instance, such groups often tend to have difficulty with time managment and financial management. They often have a variety of interpersonal obligations and expectations which can cause problems, particularly if their peers do not appreciate the goals that they have set for themselves and are trying to meet through school.

If one is seriously considering enrolling a Burmese hill-tribe person in a community college you have my blessings but please make sure the basic foundation of time management skills is there when you do. Also please note that although I am refering to certain ethnic groups as "indigenous," and say they tend to have certain traits, these traits are culturally and environmentally based, not genetic. Many Karen, for instance, do not share these traits. On the other hand, many of these Karen who do not share these traits, tend to be from major cities like Rangoon and often have trouble speaking Karen language. They are sort of like a Native American Indian who grew up in Brooklyn or Oakland, California, and therefore much more adapted to the "modern" world (for lack of a better term) than many other members of their ethnic group. By contrast, when I went to high school with Navajos I had classmates who divided money into two categories. "enough" and "not enough," with everything else being an unnecessary distinction. Time was divided into "now" and "some day if it has to be done." For these people "rodeo" was a great activity and a cow basically a punching bag with legs. Aside from the interest in rodeo, I've seen some of this same style of thinking among many Karen (which perhaps explains why I like them). Industrial-era living requires a while different style of thought than indigenous living and school requires the former.

Then again, by the time most of these folks get their English to a level where it seems realistic to enroll them in a higher education facility, they should have much of the required cognitive needs down too.

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