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For Refugee Students, A Diploma Is More Than A Piece Of Paper

Five years ago, David Lian wasn’t allowed to go to school.

At the time, David was a Burmese refugee living in Malaysia, where laws prohibited him from attending public school. After three years, David and his family were able to move to the U.S. where he attended Iroquois High School in Louisville.

Now 16, David is already starting his freshman year at the University of Louisville and planning to get his Bachelor’s degree in two years.

He said his passion is what drives him. 

"A lot of people say, 'you are doing a lot of things, you are doing so much,' but you know that’s how I graduated from high school," said David. "I just want to succeed. I can’t really explain why, I just want to succeed at something.”

Regardless of what he’s already accomplished, David said the road to higher education is not easy for refugee students. The two biggest issues they face, according to David, are learning English and understanding the application process.

David said he was lucky to have the help of Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM), a local resettlement agency in the Highlands, and the support of his parents, but he said not all refugees are as fortunate.

'They Have A Lot Of Barriers To Overcome'

That’s where the Americana Community Center comes in.

The organization, located at 4801 Southside Dr., has been helping immigrants and refugees settle in the Louisville area since 1990. But over past four years, the center's College and Career Readiness class has been preparing students to continue their education after high school.

During the ACC's after school program, students in grades six through 12 have the opportunity to attend a weekly class where they learn about professional development, test-taking tips and stress management skills. Once a student enters their senior year of high school they can receive one-on-one time with an Americana college coach.

Americana’s Family and Youth Program Vista Kathryn Shields said the program provides extra support to students who might not be getting the help they need from their parents or high school counselors.

“They have a lot of barriers to overcome,” said Shields. “They obviously have -- navigating this new system as first-generation college students, but also as either first-generation Americans or as people who are new to the country all together.”

Sometimes the obstacles students face are cultural differences. Shields said there have been instances when students said their parents did not want them to attend college or Americana’s readiness program.

“We try to explain to parents that college is important," said Shields. "It’s a really beneficial thing in United States culture and society, but [there’s] also balancing that with the desire of the parents. It may be just a lack of information that's been given to them in other capacities, but also there are personal and cultural things that might be preventing that from happening.”

Shields said Americana is working to expand the college and Career Readiness program to include parents by informing them about their children’s higher education, and also letting them know that college is an option for older adults, too.

A Diploma Is Not Just A Piece Of Paper

So far, the program has been a success.

In the four years it's been running, students taking the center's college and career readiness class have had a 100 percent acceptance rate to college.

Narjis Alsaadi, a 16-year-old from Iraq, is hoping to be one of those students next year. The high school junior wants to be a pharmacist and is already looking at colleges — Sullivan University and the University of Kentucky are her top picks.

Narjis said she’ll be the first in her family to pursue higher education, which is something that makes her both proud and nervous.

“It’s made me feel really excited because like, when I visit my country or when I see my friends from my country, I will tell them I will be the first one,” she said. “I’m a little bit scared about that point because this is my second language and I’m from Iraq and all this stuff.”

But Narjis said the class at Americana helps calm her nerves. Through it, she’s found financial aid and now uses a to-do list that outlines what she needs to do each year to be ready for college.

Both Narjis and David say going to college is about more than simply furthering their education. For them, it’s an important step in integrating into their new communities.

“Education is important," David said. "Going to college or any other classes or any other school is not just to get a piece of paper like a diploma or something like that. [It’s] to learn the skills to engage in this higher education, but also to learn the skills we need in life.” 

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