'Education changes the world': the World University Service of Canada's Student Refugee Program.

Author:Peterson, Glen


This paper reflects on the origins and development of the Student Refugee Program of the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) and its significance as a "transformational" force in the lives of individuals and communities. The WUSC Student Refugee Program is a unique effort involving students, faculty and staff at universities and colleges across Canada who work together to mobilize material and human resources in order to enable student refugees to resettle and complete their post-secondary studies in Canada. The author, who has worked closely with the Student Refugee Program at the University of British Columbia since the mid-1990s, first describes the operation of the Student Refugee Program, and then considers its significance in relation to issues of resettlement, gender equality, "brain drain" and transnationalism.


Cet article porte sur les origines et l'etablissement du Programme d'etudiants refugies de l'organisme Entraide universitaire mondiale du Canada ainsi que sa place en tant que force > dans la vie d'individus et de communautes. Le Programme d'etudiants refugies d'EUMC est une initiative unique faisant appel a la participation d'etudiants, de professeurs et de membres du personnel d'universites et de colleges de partout au Canada. Ensemble, ils travaillent a ramasser du materiel et des ressources humaines afin de permettre a des etudiants refugies de se reinstaller et de terminer leurs etudes postsecondaires au Canada. L'auteur, qui a travaille etroitement avec le Programme d'etudiants refugies a l'Universite de Colombie-Britannique depuis les annees 1990, decrit le fonctionnement du Programme, pour ensuite examiner son apport dans les questions de la reinstallation, de l'egalite des sexes, de l'exode des cerveaux et de la transnationalisation.

The purpose of this paper is to reflect upon the significance of a unique educational program involving Canadian universities and student refugees whose lives have been disrupted by war and political upheaval. (1) For more than three decades, World University Service of Canada's Student Refugee Program (SRP) has enabled student refugees from countries around the world to complete their post-secondary studies and build new lives in Canada. It is currently the only program of its kind in the world, combining resettlement with education.

The SRP is also a program that facilitates transformative learning, not just for the refugee students themselves, whose lives are changed in very direct and tangible ways by their participation in the program, but often also for the Canadian students, faculty and staff who are involved in the program. By "transformative" I mean learning processes that involve an expansion of consciousness and/or an altering of perspective. As described by Mezirow, Boyd and Myers, and others, transformative learning theory suggests the processes and ways in which adult learners construct meaning in their lives. (2) Unlike learning that involves the acquisition of skills or the application of established frames of reference, transformative learning is learning that involves a change in one's world view and/or understanding of the self. Transformative learning occurs infrequently and often in response to a major life change or crisis, but can also be cultivated by teachers and structured learning environments. I suggest that the informal learning environment of the Student Refugee Program, in which student refugees and Canadian students, staff and faculty come together for a common purpose--to facilitate the academic and personal success of the student refugees--is conducive to transformative learning. The WUSC students themselves are undergoing a major life change when they come to Canada, which may augment the conditions for transformative learning. Indeed, the universities and learning communities that have embraced the Student Refugee Program see it as an example of the power of education to effect positive change. One of the mottos of the World University Service of Canada or "WUSC" as it is more commonly known is "Education Changes the World." It is a motto founded on the belief that education is a key to both individual and collective empowerment, and that education involves not only the transmission of knowledge and the acquisition of skills but an awareness of the self and a capacity and will to effect change.

It should be made clear at the outset that this paper is not the outcome of a structured research project. The data used in this paper were not systematically gathered, nor is the paper an attempt to test a set of predetermined research hypotheses. Rather, this paper is based largely on the personal experiences and reflections of someone who has worked closely with the WUSC Student Refugee Program and its participants for nearly two decades at one Canadian university campus. It is the hope of the author that the reflections offered here may help to illuminate some--though certainly not all--of the experiential aspects of the Student Refugee Program. If the paper subscribes to any one subject position, it is one of advocacy for a program that deserves more attention than it has so far received. The paper begins with a brief overview of the origins of the World University Service of Canada in an earlier era of student activism in Europe. I then describe the workings of the contemporary Student Refugee Program and the long journey that students make from refugee camp to Canadian campus. This part of the paper builds heavily on my own experience as Faculty Advisor to the local WUSC committee at the University of British Columbia, a position that I have held since 1994. In the remaining sections of the paper, I adopt a more academic perspective and ask what the Student Refugee Program can tell us about some of the key issues surrounding the role of education in human and international development, including the "brain drain" phenomenon; the relationship between refugee resettlement and the construction of a transnational or diasporic consciousness. In the conclusion, I return to the question of transformative learning and offer some examples, gleaned through personal observation and experience, of ways in which the Student Refugee Program provided a transformative learning experience for participants.

The World University Service

Refugee assistance has been central to the World University Service since the organization's inception. The roots of WUS stretch back to August 1920 when a body known as the World's Student Christian Federation launched European Student Relief, a student-led organization for assisting students whose lives and studies had been disrupted by the First World War. From its headquarters in Geneva, the Student Christian Federation appealed to students around the world for contributions. (3) Soon European Student Relief expanded its role beyond Europe and victims of war, organizing an emergency feeding operation for more than 30,000 famine-stricken students in Moscow and contributing funds to rebuild libraries in Tokyo that had been destroyed during the great Kanto Earthquake. (4) In May 1925 European Student Relief changed its name to International Student Services (ISS) and it remained active throughout the 1930s, organizing conferences, seminars and study tours, and providing assistance to Jewish students and other refugees fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. The first Canadian committee of ISS was formed in 1939 by a group of students and professors at the University of Toronto. (5) The first UBC ISS committee was established in 1948. In 1950 ISS renamed itself World University Service. The name change reflected the fact that the focus of international relief and refugee assistance was beginning to shift from Europe to Asia and the Middle East. WUS also shed its former Christian affiliation and declared itself a secular organization. But the humanitarian commitment and much of the earlier focus on student relief and refugee assistance remained. In the ensuing decades, national WUS chapters were established in many countries around the world, including Canada (1957). At the same time, local WUSC (for

WUSC and Students

WUSC's engagement with Canadian university students takes place on two levels. One involves the effort to provide Canadian students with direct exposure to the peoples and problems of the developing world by sending students overseas on study seminars and as volunteers. The annual International Seminar has taken place every year since 1948; its alumni include some of the most influentia1 figures in Canadian public life over the previous hall century, including the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau (Ghana 1957), former OECD Secretary General Donald Johnston, former Governor of the Bank of Canada David Dodge and current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the Honourable Beverly McLachlin. (6) WUSC's other main form of engagement with Canadian university students is through its flagship Student Refugee Program. Established in 1978, the Student Refugee Program was both an outgrowth of the earlier efforts described above and a response to a significant change in Canadian immigration policy. In 1976 the Canadian Immigration Act was changed to recognize refugees as a separate category distinct from other immigrants. In the late 1970s, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled Vietnam by sea in vessels ranging from wooden rafts to ocean freighters. (7) The "boat people" crisis captured Canada's and the world's attention, dramatizing the plight of refugees in a way never before seen. Canadian voluntary organizations as well as individuals and families pressed the Canadian government to open its doors to the boat people. In response to these demands, the government formally introduced the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program (PSRP) in 1979. Under this program, individuals, organizations and private citizen groups can apply to the federal...

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