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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Rural college's innovative program offers refugees a brighter future | Buffalo News

Photo: Jay Tokasz
"Felix Madji escaped armed captors as a 13-year-old in the Central African Republic – a harrowing experience that would set the now-second-year college student apart from classmates on most campuses." summarizes Jay Tokasz, who covers higher education for The Buffalo News.

Denise Reichard teaches a communications class at Houghton College at the First Presbyterian Church in Buffalo.
Photo: Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

But in Houghton College’s Buffalo program, Madji, now 21, knows he’s in familiar company.

Inside a retrofitted church hall on the West Side where classes meet daily, Madji and other refugees are getting a shot at a college degree at a very affordable cost.
“Some students have stories maybe worse than mine, but all of us have similar stories,” Madji said.

Most of the 55 students in this novel program share a common bond: They are refugees and immigrants from nations thousands of miles away who have resettled in Buffalo. To get here, many survived war, left their families and homelands, and lived in stifling refugee camps – only to be greeted by the harsh reality of being outsiders, economically and culturally, in their adopted city.

“I tend to think we’re in the process of giving them back their future,” said Cameron Airhart, a longtime Houghton history professor and dean of the Buffalo program. “They’re bundles of human potential.”

As the cost of college continues to skyrocket, refugees who come to the United States with little or nothing are among the least able to afford it. Many young refugees also arrive with limited English skills, making the transition to college-level work especially challenging.

Houghton College, a Christian school located in rural Allegany County, has tight connections with Jericho Road Community Health Center. The health center provides an array of health and other services to mostly immigrant families in Buffalo. College officials learned a few years ago that a growing number of young refugees in the city had few real options for education beyond high school. 
Community college, the most obvious starting point for high school graduates with limited resources, isn’t able to provide the small class settings and intensive English tutoring that many refugees need.

“These are people who wouldn’t succeed there,” Airhart said. “And do we care about them? We decided we’re going to care about them.”

Like many small liberal arts colleges, Houghton has struggled to balance affordability with its own rising costs, so the college was in no position to start a program that would drain resources from the main campus. At the same time, to make a program for refugees work, college officials knew they would have to make it virtually free, while providing a level of remedial instruction that can be costly.

“It forced us to ask a lot of hard questions about, in the first two years of college, what do students need and what do they not need?” Airhart said. “We viewed ourselves very much as a startup.”

Source: Buffalo News

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