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University of the People, building on online program for Syrian refugees, offers assistance to those covered by Trump travel ban.

February 6, 2017
 

President Trump's travel ban, while now on hold pending legal reviews, has made it more difficult for those from seven Muslim-majority nations to travel to the United States for higher education.

The University of the People was not created with the current immigration debate in mind. But its model of online education, American accreditation, and payment required only for end of course exams has been useful to refugees, who are regularly recruited as students. Now the university is raising money to provide scholarships for anyone from the seven countries covered by the Trump order who enrolls and then seeks to take tests for certification.

“Students from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, whose only crime is seeking to escape terrible hardship and suffering through education, are finding their futures threatened by this directive,” said a statement from Shai Reshef, president of the university, in announcing the new program.

The University of the People, founded in 2009, is tuition-free for access to instruction through open-source materials, peer-to-peer instruction and volunteer instructors and advisers. The costs for taking exams for credit is about $100 for each course, or $4,000 for a full four-year degree.

Since the university announced last week that it was raising money for scholarships, 30 people from the seven countries covered by the Trump order have started at the University of the People.

In an interview, Reshef said that the university currently enrolls 1,000 refugees -- 500 of them from Syria who are covered by a scholarship program for which the university raised money prior to the Trump announcement. Of the Syrian refugees, half have fled their homes but remain in Syria, while the remainder are scattered all over the world.

Of the three areas of study in which the university offers degrees, business and computer science each attract 40 percent of the Syrian students, while health science attracts 20 percent.

"These are people who graduated from high school and there was nothing to go to," he said. Or they had just started at a university and "their studies were disrupted."

While Reshef is critical of the Trump order, he said that online education is particularly important in an era when people may have difficulty crossing borders.

"People who want access to an American education should have options," he said. Online may be the best bet for many at this time, he added.

While those who are refugees may lack the ability to get into the United States and the money to pay for traditional programs, they don't lack the ability to participate in online programs, Reshef said. Refugees are amazingly resourceful at finding ways to get online access.

Reshef recounted meeting a Syrian refugee in Turkey who is enrolled at the university. Reshef asked him how he found out about the University of the People. "I watched your TED Talk online," the man said.

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