The Plight of Syrian Students

 And the obstacles they face on their path to higher education 

Since the civil war broke out in Syria in the spring of 2011, more than 4.5 million refugees have fled to neighboring countries, while another 13.5 million remain in Syria needing assistance. Described by many as the most pressing humanitarian crisis of our time, the civil war and resulting refugee crisis in Syria is being felt most intensely in higher education.

[Above: Free Syrian Army fighters load magazines for rifles during clashes with the Syrian army in 2012. (photo via Flickr)]

With Syria’s higher education system largely shut down due to the five-year conflict, the country experienced a nearly 485 percent increase between 2012 and 2013 in the number of out-of-school adolescents (people between the ages of 18 and 22), according to data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Figures from the U.S. Department of State’s EducationUSA initiative show that in the following 2014-2015 academic year, the number of Syrian students at U.S. colleges and universities rose to 792 — up from 424 five years earlier.

READ: American Universities Offer Opportunities for Syrian Students, but Resources Are Drying Up

“We think around 350,000 [Syrians] were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out in 2011, and virtually all of them have had their education interrupted, if not ended,” says Allan E. Goodman, PhD, president and CEO of the Institute of International Education (IIE). “So here is a cohort of … people who were literate, smart, male and female, [who] now have no place to go to get more education because the system in Syria is not functioning at the moment.”

Yet, in light of the Paris terrorist attacks last fall — and the more recent attack in Brussels — and pressure from both politicians and the public to limit and even ban Syrian refugees from entering the United States, it seems likely that the number of Syrian students at U.S. colleges and universities will remain stagnant. This situation is similar to the nation’s reaction after 9/11, when it was discovered that one of the 19 hijackers entered the U.S. on an F-1 student visa.

The Paris attacks coupled with the Syrian refugee crisis have led to an ongoing debate over — and more scrutiny placed on — immigration and the process through which immigrants acquire visas. However, Goodman says, the problem isn’t with the current structure.

IIE President Allan E. Goodman speaks at an event.
IIE President Allan E. Goodman speaks at an event.

“There’s nothing wrong with the present system in respect to granting student visas. The system works. Not everybody gets a student visa; not everybody deserves a student visa,” he says. “The process of applying to college coupled with applying for a visa is about as strong and robust as you could hope for in trying to determine if a student [should be eligible for entrance to the U.S.].”

Applying for a visa, Goodman says, is in fact not the most difficult part of the process for international students.

“The hardest thing a student does is apply to get into a college or university — because in many other countries, admission is determined by a national exam, a centralized process; the ministry of education says you’ve been admitted and you can go to X or Y school,” he explains. “In America, it’s not a federal responsibility, so every state university has different admissions requirements, [as does] every private university. So the hardest and most complicated thing a student has to do is apply for admission.”

International Admissions
At The Pennsylvania State University, undergraduate admissions for all students at all 20 campuses is conducted at the University Park campus. Mary Adams, associate director in the Undergraduate Admissions Office at Penn State, says the university’s admissions process is thorough and the requirements are essentially the same for all applicants, both domestic and international.

“We gather biographical information; we ask students where they want to study, what they want to study, when they want to begin. We invite students to provide us with a listing of their activities and a personal statement that might talk about their experiences and how those have prepared them for higher education,” she says. “Then we ask for high school records, standardized test scores — SAT or ACT — and then the only variation for an international applicant would be if [they] identify as a non-native speaker of English, then we look for some documentation of English language proficiency.”

This straightforward process may be easy for American students, but for Syrians — most of whom have been forced to cease their education because of the civil war — providing documents can be difficult. And gaining access to transcripts and the like can be especially difficult for those who are no longer in Syria.

According to a spokesperson from EducationUSA, many Syrian students who fled the country did so without any documentation.

A State Department organization, EducationUSA offers guidance to international students seeking to study in the U.S. With a counselor specifically designated to assist Syrian students, the organization advises them — via a variety of online platforms — on all aspects of the college admission process and how to apply for a visa. About half of the students they advise reside in Syria, while the other half are currently living in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, the EducationUSA spokesperson says.

Should students overcome the documentation obstacle, they must then prove they are who they say they are.

Goodman believes that this process, the long and arduous application process, is good for American security.

“What it establishes is sort of the key security question that is on everybody’s mind: Are you who you say you are? Is that your real identity? Did you really go to this high school or that undergraduate college? As opposed to training to fight for ISIS in Syria,” he says. “And if you think about the stuff students submit, [they] can’t amass all that and have spent four years fighting for ISIS. At the core of the security issue is ‘who are you?’ And the college application process helps determine that with much greater certainty.”

A propaganda poster in the streets of Syria featuring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (photo via Flickr)
A propaganda poster in the streets of Syria featuring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (photo via Flickr)

U.S. immigration lawyer David Garabedian agrees. He says that anyone who has been admitted to a credible university stands a better chance of getting a visa.

“Even if you are coming from the Middle East, obviously the fact that you’re accepted by a certain school speaks a lot about who you are, because the school will accept you based on your merits,” says Garabedian, who works for private global services company Migration Expert. “If it’s a university or college that has a good reputation … then the ability to get an F-1 visa is much higher.”

At Penn State — which employs a need-blind admission policy, meaning the university doesn’t consider students’ financial situation in decisions — students who are high academic achievers, no matter their country of origin, are more likely to be admitted.

“When we see applicants from places that we typically don’t, we’re excited about it in a very positive way,” Adams says. “We’re looking at what they want to study, what their academic credentials are, and if there’s a match between their talents and that program. We don’t look at where they are from.”

Funding and Intent to Return
Once students are admitted, however, their finances come into play in a big way. And while Penn State may employ a need-blind policy, as Adams says, “the United States government is not need-blind when it comes to issuing student visas.”

All international students, regardless of the institution to which they are admitted, must prove they have sufficient funds to pay for their first year of study. Beyond that, they must show how they plan to cover the remaining years’ costs.

The calculated amount for Penn State international students — including tuition, room and board, textbooks, and fees, as well as money to cover living expenses during the summer months — is $60,000 for the first 12 months of study.

“We’re required by regulation to make sure that the student has the money to go to school so they don’t resort to illegal employment or to depending on the U.S. taxpayer to be here,” says Masume Assaf, director of International Student and Scholar Advising at Penn State.

Yet another one of the many challenges faced by prospective Syrian students is lack of access to funds — or an overall lack of funds.

“Finances is a huge thing, and studying in the U.S., especially as a foreign student, is very expensive because U.S. colleges and universities charge a different rate for international students,” says Garabedian. “You won’t even get to the interview at the embassy or consulate if the school doesn’t believe you have enough money to pay for the program.”

Should a student prove the ability to fund his or her education, the university will issue a Form I-20, also known as a “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status.” Students then fill out the F-1 visa form, Form DS-160, which is required of all foreign citizens who wish to enter the U.S. to study at one of many types of institutions: colleges or universities, high schools, private elementary schools, seminaries, conservatories, or other academic institutions, including language training programs.

After paying a nonrefundable application fee, students schedule an in-person interview at a U.S. consulate or embassy. According to Assaf, the consular office will run a student’s name through an array of international police databases. The office then looks at a range of factors in making its decision: finances, past military service in their home country, the credibility of the admitting institution, ties to terrorist groups or acts of espionage, a past criminal record, intended major, and intent to return to their home country.

According to the EducationUSA spokesperson, for Syrian students, demonstrating their ties to their home country and their intent to return is often the most challenging part of the interview. Many Syrians, who have immigrated to other countries, are considered “intending immigrants,” meaning the U.S. believes they are less likely to leave the country and return to Syria at the end of their studies.

This situation is complicated further by the lack of a U.S. consulate or embassy in Syria. Garabedian says this forces students to travel to a consulate office outside of their home country.

“[If] you leave your country and go to another country, the consulate there will have difficulty making a decision because it doesn’t have jurisdiction over you,” he says, “and it doesn’t have access to the local records or law enforcement agencies to be able to verify who [you are] or to even be certain that the documents [you] brought are valid.”

According to Garabedian, for students coming from areas of the world experiencing war or civil unrest such as Syria, the burden of proof often rests heavily on them.

“Any time you have a region that is in turmoil, … automatically the embassy or consulate is on much higher alert, and so it will take that into consideration and may issue a blanket rejection that indicates that it was not able to establish enough ties to [a student’s] home country,” he says. “It’s not that students from these countries are always denied; it’s just that they have to prove a lot more.”

Yet for students who have been denied a visa, there is still hope.

EducationUSA often encourages students who have been denied to re-apply. Although the organization cannot secure a visa for them or influence a consulate’s decision, it does help guide them by providing information on alternative documentation and scholarships, as well as access to other public resources.

In addition, EducationUSA counselors help students better articulate their reasons for applying to a specific institution or program and how it will help them accomplish their career goals. According to the organization’s spokesperson, the ability to do so can be helpful during the visa interview process.

All of the obstacles and scrutiny they face aside, international students’ presence in the U.S. has an enormous impact on the economy. During the 2013-2014 academic year, international students and their families created or supported 340,000 jobs and contributed $26.8 billion to the U.S. economy, according to an analysis by NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

In addition, international students bring academic and cultural value to their institutions and help build global connections.

To help these students, Goodman and IIE are doing their part. Through its Syria Consortium, IIE — in partnership with 65 universities both in and outside the U.S. — is providing Syrian students scholarships to study outside of Syria; twenty-eight member schools now offer scholarships to these students.

But doing so does little to ease Goodman’s worry that young Syrians, believing they have no other option, will turn to ISIS — a prospect that he believes should be everyone’s concern.

“We are facing a lost generation of Syrians,” says Goodman, “and none of us should want that.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.