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Despite War Torn Past, Greeley Refugees Are Going To College

Nathan Heffel
Sadiyo Adan studies nursing at Aims Community College in Greeley.

Regbe Misgna, Khai Tha Zin Oo, and Sadiyo Adan are typical college students, but with one distinction. They were all forced to flee war ravaged countries.

Regbe Misgna fled her home in Eritrea, an east African country, arriving in Greeley in 2008.

“My dad was actually, um, captured. He was a soldier and he was captured by the Ethiopian army,” Misgna said.

Something similar happened to 19-year-old Khai Tha Zin Oo.

“Like, the Burmese people have land too, but they want to steal land and get more land. And like, they were fighting and kick us out of our land, so we had to live on the boarder to other country,” she said.

Khai Tha Zin Oo’s family left the country of Burma, also called Myanmar, after ethnic strife forced them off their land into a refugee camp along the border of Thailand.

"Refugees are normal people under abnormal circumstances."

Sadiyo Adan is a refugee from Somalia. She said the jolt of coming to the U.S., and especially to Greeley, was tough.

“It was pretty hard to start high school here, because I wasn’t speaking any English at all,” Adan said. "So, the most difficult thing was learning English language and learning the different culture."

Vanja Pejic is a Doctoral student in school psychology at the University of Northern Colorado and a refugee herself, fleeing from Bosnia in 1997. She said the Newcomer programs developed within the Greeley-Evans School District 6, prepared the three students to graduate high school and enter college despite their war torn pasts.

Normal People Under Abnormal Circumstances

“Refugees are normal people under abnormal circumstances,” Pejic said. “I think that really sheds light on this idea of resilience. They’re incredibly resilient.”

As refugee students, once they arrive in the U.S. they continue to face challenges that their American counterparts don’t normally experience.

“Many of these students will take on, in some way, a parent role, whether it’s attending medical appointments with their parents, or attending a job interview, or renting a home, whatever the case may be,” Pejic said. “They really genuinely take on a whole lot more of a parent responsibility then a typical college student would.”

Greeley Evans school officials said they do everything they can to prepare refugees, like all students, for whatever path they chose once they graduate high school. Based on their calculations, 60 percent of the current refugees enrolled in Greeley high schools will most likely chose to go on to some form of community college or university. But the Newcomer program, and all the official support, ends once the students graduate high school.

Now in the nursing program at Aims Community College, Sadiyo Adan said it takes immense personal strength and perseverance to learn English, let alone extensive medical terminology.

“When I was in high school, and I came home and doing homework, I  tried to learn English on my own, I used to have a dictionary and find like new words and then write it down, the definition, and how to use the new words, so that’s how I get it,” Adan said.

A Need For A Greater Support System, Post-High School

Vanja Pejic said there needs to be a greater support system in place to keep refugee students in College. She points to special programs at the University of Minnesota and a graduate level program at Harvard. However, there are no official refugee programs at the UNC nor Aims Community College.

“Currently at UNC there’s not a whole lot. And I think a part of it is because this influx of refugees came primarily about six years ago,” Pejic said. “So it’s a pretty short amount of time if you think about program development to just put something overnight.”

Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC
Khai Tha Zin Oo, studies at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.

The challenge said Maureen Ulevich, the director of the Center for International Students at UNC, is that students who arrive as refugees are considered legal permanent residents so they are admitted to the university as a domestic student.

Meaning, on paper, they’re not seen as a refugee that possibly needs assistance, but rather just another Colorado student.

“We learn about them, sometimes through admissions, if an admissions councilor thinks an admitted student might need a little bit more English practice, the councilor might bring the student to the intensive English program,” said Ulevich. "Or a faculty member might recommend that this student needs a little more practice in writing perhaps and then the faculty member introduces the student to us."

While the University has no concrete system in place to support its growing refugee student population, Ulevich said there are a number of initiatives being discussed.

“I think this is something that everybody at the University is beginning to think about now. And really want to support the students so they can be successful. You don’t want to accept somebody and then find out you haven’t given them enough support to succeed,” she said.

Self-Made Support Groups

Gene Meier, director of the Academic Pathways Office at Aims Community College said they're expanding an English as a second language program, and are in need of professors that speak Somali, as the number of refugees applying for the program increases.

“The ESL and Intense English Learning Program, works with the population of Greeley and it’s a very new program. We had ESL here, but it was kept to a minimum until last year,” said Meier. “When our strategy was redrawn, we saw our population in Greeley, regardless of what city data shows, we’re looking at on over 50 percent non-white community, and we’re showing at least 45 percent are Spanish speaking.”

He said the college understands the numbers are small, but more and more refugees are coming to Aims and will need the school’s support.

Regbe Misgna said she’s made her own support system that’s best for her. She goes to the Center for Human Enrichment on the UNC campus, which helps her with everyday questions about college. She also keeps close ties with her high school advisor from the Newcomer Program. She said that self-made support group will help her through college.

“Yes I came through refugee, and yes English is my second language and that does give me a harder time then normal students, but that’s just the only difference is that. There’s not really much different, I’m just like any other student,” said Misgna.

College provided support system or not, Khai Tha Zin Oo said she’s determined to finish College not just for herself, but for her family.

“My parents and all my families they dream for me is to be a better person and to help other people back, because a lot of people they don’t even get to go to school, and don’t even get to study or have enough food or stuff, and I’m the lucky one,” she said.

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