10 November 2020

STAR trustee and Equal Access campaigner Maryam writes about her involvement in organising the Refugee Scholars Conference last month.

Hello STAR members! I’m Maryam, one of the activists for the Equal Access campaign at STAR, and I’m very excited to tell you about an online collaborative conference myself and a group of sanctuary students hosted last month.

There is no doubt that the current time is uncertain and different for many students across the world. This includes challenges from getting into higher education, completing our studies remotely, to missing the support and the social aspect of university we are used to. Students from asylum seeking/refugee backgrounds can face even more challenges. As there is usually less clear guidance and specific information for them, it can be very difficult to navigate several aspects of going to university. Questions arise around things such as accessing loans, understanding how their status affects their fees, as well as questions about the recognition of their documents and qualifications. At a time when university admissions are busier than ever adapting to changes, sanctuary students like us can feel confused, not know who to speak to, or not have someone that relates to them.

For this reason, a group of student representatives from STAR and University of Sanctuary (UoS) organised and hosted an online conference, inviting sanctuary students from various educational backgrounds and academic stages. This conference aimed to create an informal, open space for networking, learning and sharing feedback or ideas with each other.

With the support of both charities, we had a programme spread over two half-days to address some of these challenges. Fortunately, the UoS conference was taking place the following week, which meant we were able to use feedback from this event to directly inform university professionals and those who can influence change at universities.

What did the conference consist of?

The event created a safe space for students to network with others who may be in a similar situation. One student said: “I was able to learn that I am not the only one running this race. It is a good forum for information as well.”

Two students from our activists group participated in a panel to talk about their experiences at university and any advice they can give to students who attended.

To provide the resources and contacts attendees need if they had more questions beyond the conference, we invited professionals from Refugee Support Network and Birkbeck, University of London to talk about how they support and welcome more sanctuary students. This received great responses. One student said “It was nice listening to other people’s views about the refugee situation as students. It made me feel confident and believe more in my ambitions regardless of the challenges.”

Students also benefited from workshops with our partner charities such as RETAS on thinking about life after university, a workshop on confidence building and public speaking and a guide to accessing university by STAR. This was also extremely successful.

Lasty, the final session of the conference was the students’ chance to tell us how they would like access to university to be improved, areas they have found challenging from their personal experience and any other obstacles they had.

What did the conference achieve?

The conference resulted in great and specific feedback that we presented at the UoS conference for universities. Challenges were acknowledged by professionals in the HE sector, and started interesting discussions about providing mentorship to students during their studies.

A student attendee said: “Both days were an amazing experience in general. It was nice to meet so many inspirational people who are looking to/ studying/ have studied in universities.”

Overall, this event was the start of our continuous work to bridge a gap between student feedback to universities and policy makers in the HE sector. Ultimately, we want to encourage universities not to only provide scholarship places, but make them of good quality, and create a university space which is open for improvement.

We are grateful to everyone who participated as speakers, panel hosts, and attendees. We would particularly like to thank the sanctuary students who attended and gave us feedback about the event, and special thanks to Sam Slatcher from City of Sanctuary who played beautiful music for us during the breaks which everyone loved! We hope these discussions and events continue with the growth of this campaign.

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