Every year, Millersville University invites refugee high school students from the city of Lancaster who plan to go to college to its campus.
Twenty McCaskey High School students came to MU as part of the “Promising Scholars: Supporting, Mentoring and Advising Refugee and Immigrant Students Transitioning to College” college project to learn about the college admissions process, academic counseling and the Lancaster Partner Program. The Lancaster Partnership Program was formed between the Lancaster School District and Millersville in 1988 to help refugees and socioeconomically disadvantaged students complete high school and obtain a college education.
The district is home to hundreds of refugee students from countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine and India. Nearly 5,000 refugees settled in Lancaster County between 2002 and 2019, with 301 moving in 2019 alone, according to USA Today data.
Margaret Mbindyo, coordinator of UM’s counseling center and assistant professor, sees the university’s mentorship project as a way to connect immigrant and refugee students in Lancaster with the university.
“What we are doing is exposing them,” Mbindyo said. “You can’t be what you’ve never seen. You cannot be what you have never known. And so when they come to Millersville, they start dreaming – ‘I want to be here, I want to be at a university like Millersville.’
[‘A dream come true’: SDoL student refugees set sights on college]
Applying to college can be a challenge for refugees due to language barriers, parents who did not attend college, and a lack of familiarity with the US education system.
But they are not without support at McCaskey. Refugee students can work closely with college and career specialists like Alejandra Zavala.
Zavala prepares high school students, many of whom are also refugees or new immigrants, for life after graduation, whether it’s applying to college, finding jobs, or enlisting in the army.
English can be one of the biggest hurdles for refugee students on their way to post-secondary education, Zavala said.
Apsara Uprety, 22, came to the United States as a refugee from Nepal 11 years ago and still cites English as one of her biggest challenges in school. Uprety, a Dean’s List student in her senior year at MU and a McCaskey graduate, once refrained from extracurricular activities because she lacked confidence in her English skills
At MU, she worried that she would be behind her peers who had 12 years of American education because she took ESL classes at Reynolds Middle School instead of core classes in math, science, English and history taught at this age.
As a future MU grad, Uprety taught McCaskey students how to succeed in college.
Uprety cited connecting with other refugee students as a key factor in finding a sense of belonging at university.
To achieve this, Uprety is working to create an organization dedicated to connecting refugee and immigrant students: RIDGE, which stands for Refugees and Immigrants Committed to Growth and Excellence.
“Being able to connect with other people with similar backgrounds is really important because that way you can resonate with them and connect on a personal level,” Uprety said. “There is also a possibility of having someone to look up to, which paves the way for others to follow.”