Education, interrupted

Immigration issues, natural disaster, and violent conflict can have a tremendous impact on people seeking to begin or continue their education. And these crises, along with the student populations they produce, are only likely to grow.

“Millions of children have had the experience of interrupted education over the last 30 years,” said Luisa Havens Gerardo, Vice Provost of Enrollment Management at Virginia Tech. “In most cases because of conflict, but in many cases because of cultural/structural issues, such as countries that do not guarantee education for girls.”

Higher education has an obligation to serve learners, establish a stake in policy discussions, and take advocacy positions on issues affecting these students, said Havens Gerardo.

The challenge to higher ed

Trying to piece together an educational history through the K12 pipeline, especially from countries such as Afghanistan, can be difficult or even impossible. Comparably, the influx of students in the wake of natural disasters, such as from Haiti or Puerto Rico, challenges institutions to find ways to serve those students’ unique needs. And the DACA impasse has created an applicant population that is qualified and prepared but with uncertain legal status.

“With all of the concern about documentation and bureaucracy, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that these are human beings behind these applications,” Havens Gerardo said. “We need to understand the magnitude and scope of the impact of their experiences and the potentially traumatic, culturally-dissonant barriers that have to be overcome.”

Advocacy: A professional competency

“For many, many years, those of us in higher education enrollment management have been uncomfortable with advocacy roles,” Havens Gerardo said. “But it comes with the position.”  

Student services professionals are “closest to the ground” when it comes to the whole student concept, and are best situated to advocate on behalf of at-risk and vulnerable students.

“In institutions, we’ve equated ‘fairness’ with apathy,” Havens Gerardo said. “We are aware of those aspects that makes each student unique and different; as William Serrata says, ‘One size fits none.’”

If enrollment managers are uncomfortable with advocacy and unwilling to take positions on “judgement call” situations, the status quo will reign.

“To move the needle on these issues, we have to be willing to engage in these conversations,” Havens Gerardo said. “Advocacy should be part of toolset, part of our core competencies as higher education professionals.

“Access, equity, and opportunity are not going to happen organically by themselves. There have to be people pushing those policies and initiatives for that to happen.”

Finding ways to help

“Institutions must balance common sense with policy in a way that allows us to still be access-oriented,” Havens Gerardo said. “We are supposed to be facilitators, conduits, rather than barriers to education.”

Many postsecondary schools, particularly in states like Florida, have initiated outreach efforts to displaced and vulnerable students. AACRAO has invited representatives from two schools finding innovative ways to help these students in need -- University of Central Florida and Valencia College -- to share their wisdom during a general session panel at the Annual Meeting in Orlando.

“We’ll discuss the types of support services and initiatives schools can implement,” said Havens Gerardo, who will be moderating the panel discussion. The panel will also include three students who will share their stories of interrupted education.

Join Havens Gerardo at the Public Policy General Session, Monday at 2:30 P.M. at the AACRAO Annual Meeting, March 25-28 in Orlando. This discussion will examine the national political landscape of DACA, Temporary Protective Status (TPS), and natural disaster relief, highlighting the personal stories of impacted students and the policies and programs of highly responsive institutions who are supporting their attempts to stay or get back on track.  We will explore the ways that individuals, institutions and our association can mobilize to have a positive impact on the lives of vulnerable student populations.

Explore related upcoming events at the Annual Meeting and beyond.

  • Tues., March 27 -- AACRAO 2018 International Luncheon: The Complex Intersection of Public Policy and Immigration. Tolu Olubunmi will share her personal experience, as well as take a deeper look at the current picture for DACA and Dreamers.

  • Wed., March 28 -- AACRAO 2018 Double Session: Inclusion and Access to Higher Education for Displaced and Vulnerable Persons. The Institute for International Education and AACRAO offer a two-part Wednesday morning session to highlight domestic and global initiatives supporting inclusion and access to higher education, including AACRAO’s partnership with UC Davis on the Article 26 Backpack ™

  • Tues., May 1 -- Free AACRAO Webinar: Inclusion and Access to Higher Education for Displaced and Vulnerable Persons. Join AACRAO for a live webinar discussing issues in higher education faced by displaced persons through real student experiences and highlighting domestic and global initiatives supporting inclusion and access to higher education, including the Article 26 Backpack™, a UC Davis initiative with which AACRAO is partnering.

  • Read Student Displacement: A Guide for Higher Education Administrators. What can your institution do to support students that have been forced to interrupt their education because of factors outside their control? Student Displacement seeks to answer that question through groundbreaking research and case studies covering acts of violence, natural disasters, sexual assault, financial displacement, school closings, medical outbreaks, and military displacement. Purchase it in the AACRAO Bookstore.