Campus visits for students from refugee backgrounds

The University’s Equity Office – Te Ara Tautika is leading a programme of campus visits to help familiarise secondary students from refugee backgrounds with the University.

2017 City Campus visit a huge success

“Refugees are the most resilient people in the world - when they are pushed down, they get back up.”

So declared Rez Gardi, a University of Auckland Law alumnus whose refugee-background identity and experiences are the foundation to her commitment to help others from refugee backgrounds.

Rez was one of four panelists addressing 40 secondary students from refugee backgrounds who attend James Cook and Kelston Girls’ high schools. Combined, the cohort represented around 14 different countries of origin, including Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Palestine.

The panel discussion formed part of an Equity Office initiative, which aimed to introduce the school students to University life and emphasise the University’s commitment to being safe, inclusive and equitable.

The panel was made up of past and present University students from refugee backgrounds: Rez Gardi, Asma Shah from the Ministry of Education, Nosia Fogogo, who is near to finishing her law degree and Yobithan Rajaratnam, who is currently studying toward a Bachelor of Science.

Director of Student Equity Terry O’Neill, who facilitated the panel discussion, acknowledged the vital contributions made by refugee background students, to and beyond the University.

“The University is an enormously diverse place, and refugees add to this richness” he said. Terry highlighted the range of resources available to students from refugee backgrounds at the University, including the Undergraduate Targeted Admission Schemes (UTAS), foundation courses and scholarships.

In addition to describing their own experiences before and after arriving in New Zealand, the panellists discussed the term “refugee” and its impact on their sense of identity. For Yobithan the word is fundamental to who he is.

“[The refugee] experience is important. It helps shape you and gives you the power to be yourself. So it’s important to acknowledge your experience.”

The visiting students were particularly keen to hear about how the panelists navigated the often-challenging transition from high school to tertiary education.

“It’s a new type of responsibility,” Rez told them. “Learning how to study, working out the style that works best for you, figuring out what papers to take. It’s important to ask questions and ask for help.”

Yobithan also encouraged the students to check out the new Students from Refugee Background (SRB) club.

In addition to a City Campus tour, students also heard a presentation by acclaimed University of Auckland academic Associate Professor Jay Marlowe. Jay's research explores how students from refugee backgrounds use social media to retain relationships across the world, enabling them to simultaneously stay connected to their friends and family in their country of origin and build a community in their new country.

Pushpa Raghavan, Dean of International/Refugee Background students at Kelston Girls’ College says that the familiarisation event is invaluable for her students.

“It boosts their self-esteem and makes them feel like the University of Auckland is a place they can go to. Seeing the panelists is a big inspiration. The students feel ‘They’re like me, they’ve gone through experiences like me, so I can do it too’. Bringing them into the University environment, showing them how they will be supported, and empowering them to have that dream is a big thing.”

As the afternoon drew to a close, students were invited to write down what they learnt during their time on campus. Many wrote about feeling proud of being a refugee. “It’s a wonderful thing that doesn’t hold me back” said one. Others wrote that they learnt about “how to get the information from the University to make a plan and get my dream".

Find out how the University of Auckland supports students from refugee backgrounds

Pilot engagement programme for students from refugee backgrounds

Refugee student and her father sitting together

The pilot engagement programme works with Auckland secondary schools with high populations of students from refugee backgrounds (SRB). The programme supports the University’s commitment to being safe, inclusive and equitable.

To date, around 50 SRB and their families from James Cook High School and Kelston Girls’ College have participated in the programmes, which include campus tours, presentations and Q&A sessions. The students’ countries of origin include Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

While on campus in May, Kelston Girls’ College students heard insights and advice from two University of Auckland students who are from refugee backgrounds. Fatima Mohammadi is in her 3rd year of a conjoint BA/LLB studying politics, ancient history and laws. She told the audience that the transition from high school to university can be “challenging”, and she advised the students to “attend class, ask for help, and don’t be afraid.” She also emphasised the importance of keeping up with friends and joining clubs to meet new people.

Fatima Mohammadi and Adorate Mizero sharing their experiences with students from Kelston Girls' College

In contrast, Adorate Mizero, a 3rd year BA student from Burundi, admitted she found the move from high school to university easy, describing how much she enjoyed choosing her own courses. But she agreed that busy study timetables can make it harder to maintain friendships. Director of Student Equity, Dr Terry O’Neill, acknowledges the government’s recent announcement that, from 2018, it will increase New Zealand’s annual refugee quota from 750 to 1000. He says the value that comes from supporting people from refugee backgrounds can be seen not just at the University but in society as a whole. “Our University community is amazingly diverse and our staff and students from refugee backgrounds add to this richness, contributing to our society, and to our future economic success and prosperity.”

Feedback from both schools has been positive, with one James Cook High School careers adviser saying “The chance to visit the University is huge – you can’t have the experience by looking at a website or reading a prospectus. Visiting the campus takes away the fear factor.”

For more information about the SRB campus visits programme email Terry O'Neill, Director - Student Equity:t.oneill@auckland.ac.nz.