Skip to main content

Supporting Afghan students and scholars

In December 2021, a sweeping effort that put into swift motion the strengths of Arizona State University and the local business community was responsible for the safe transit of 61 Afghan refugee women to Arizona, where they have the opportunity to complete their higher education goals.

While this undertaking to serve students from the Asian University for Women made some headlines and attracted attention, it is just one of many under-the-radar efforts over the years by individuals from within the ASU community to ensure everyone with the desire and motivation, regardless of where they live or challenges beyond their control, gets a shot at higher education.

“ASU is very committed to educational access and ensuring all people have equal opportunity to pursue their dreams for an education,” says ASU Provost Nancy Gonzales. “Extreme crisis created an acute situation where we needed to operate quickly. But opportunities to help students on a daily basis is something we are very committed to.”

This mission had a happy ending. However, the work to reach those who are underserved and often forgotten never ends.

While their specific story may be unique, many aspects of their refugee experience are not rare.


Education as a lifesaver

Pam DeLargy, executive director of Education for Humanity, spearheaded the movement to bring the AUW students to ASU and has been deeply involved in designing specialized programs for them.

But finding solutions for scenarios like this is not new for DeLargy, who came to ASU in 2018 to help develop its refugee program and specifically design Education for Humanity, which initially started overseas to provide support for online resources. Demand sparked its offerings to eventually include marginalized populations and those who do not have access to higher education.

When DeLargy first met with ASU President Michael Crow, she was retired from the United Nations, after more than 20 years working in global humanitarian response. Crow expressed how vital it is to reach these populations.

DeLargy wholeheartedly was on board. She shared with Crow the plight of those who had died attempting to migrate in the Mediterranean, all for the glimpse of a life better than the ones they had.

DeLargy makes the direct connection between academic opportunity and quality of life.

“If some of those young people had been able to get access online or another way to higher education, then they wouldn't have traveled onward and lost their lives in the Mediterranean or Sahara,” DeLargy says. “It proved to me that education is really a lifesaving thing.”

Working more intensively with refugee students in Maricopa County has been DeLargy’s focus for the last year-and-a-half. This includes partnering with the Welcome to America Project to provide English language training, and also with Goodwill to offer career training for resettled refugees who want to move on to better professional opportunities.

Outreach is another component. It’s common for resettled families to view attending college as fantasy. DeLargy and her team meet personally with them to break through that ideology.

“We make sure the different communities here are aware of scholarship programs and other kinds of financial assistance, whether it’s to community colleges or other universities here. It doesn't have to be ASU,” DeLargy says.

DeLargy’s work addresses needs specific to refugees. Many come from high-conflict areas or wars, or grew up in refugee camps. Some find themselves in a new world but still must cope with the trauma from their old ones.

Navigating this experience leans on collaborations between ASU’s Education for Humanity and Global Academic Initiatives, as well as with external community organizations that have the resources and know-how to provide complete care.

Susan Edgington, executive director of ASU Global Academic Initiatives, was among those tasked with planning for the arrival and initial onboarding of the AUW students. Like for most refugee students, she knew that the Global Launch Program, ASU’s English language learning and academic preparation program, would be the best first step.

Edgington fully understands the difference a degree can make in anyone’s life, but especially those coming from instability.

“All of us really truly believe that education is a path to a better future and by allowing them to have support academically, we are giving them the best thing ASU has to offer,” Edgington says.

Sometimes this goes beyond the classroom. For example, by connecting students with work-study opportunities for part-time employment at ASU that won’t conflict with their schedules, while helping them with living costs and allowing them to keep pace with

their degree programs. If needed, stress counseling and mental health support are provided through a partnership with Valleywise Health.

Some refugee students are new to the U.S., while others settled here as children and graduated from local high schools before continuing their education at ASU. Social workers, teachers, engineers and entrepreneurs are among alumni refugees over the years who have attained their professional accomplishments, thanks to ASU’s umbrella of services.

“We have some amazing alumni who have gone on to do incredible things, and I think a lot of people may not have known they come from that refugee background,” DeLargy says.


Filling the gaps

Fostering relationships and overseeing refugee programs around the world is what Nick Sabato, director of country programs at Education for Humanity, does to help bring higher academia to international students. Sabato reaches about 4,000 students around the globe, the vast majority residing in Africa and the Middle East, who have been displaced and whose education has been interrupted.

Sabato and DeLargy’s work underscores the importance of ongoing education outreach to refugees worldwide.

This ranges from helping an Afghan citizen become a professional in the accounting field to offering enhanced English language programs to someone in Jordan.

“Education is the key that unlocks opportunities for anyone. For most, the role models they see in their communities who have reached levels of success have done so through education,” Sabato says. “The purpose is to fill those gaps where those opportunities don’t exist.”

One is the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, the world’s largest for Syrian refugees, where ASU provides English language programming. Sabato shared a story about an older female student who kept coming back to the courses. She was inquisitive, engaged and super motivated. When asked why she kept returning, she said her son, who was 8, was attending English classes from another non-governmental organization. She wanted to be able to communicate with her son in the language he was learning.

“She saw this as an opportunity to pursue a goal for herself, but also as a way to enhance her relationship with her son. It’s one of many examples where you know you are helping someone to meet their goals,” Sabato says. “But for it to take you inside the walls of their home and how that is having an effect … I think that’s pretty compelling and motivating for us to provide that for as many people as possible.”

For every success story that gets the spotlight, however, there are exponentially more waiting in the shadows, hoping and praying for a chance at triumph and a moment in the sun.

And from here in the desert, there are equally as many people working to make this happen.

Megan Phillips, research project manager with the College of Health Solutions is one of them.


Helping where help is needed

Phillips’ involvement began prior to the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021. She was trying to find a way to get a public health physician — who was hunted by the Taliban for his work and leadership in the former Afghan government — and his family out of the country.

Phillips refers to him as Abdul, which is not his real name, to protect his and his family’s identity.

Abdul had been accepted into the master’s program with full tuition support and a funded research position at the College of Health Solutions, but his plan was derailed.

Last August, the Taliban came to Abdul’s home looking for him. That’s when his wife and baby daughter went into hiding. At the time, Phillips thought all they had to do was get them inside the airport and then they could get on a plane.

But when just getting inside became impossible, that’s when Phillips and her ASU colleagues needed to explore other options — fast.

“It was a really hard, chaotic situation … we didn’t know what we should be applying for, where to submit information …” Phillips recalls.

Then the emails from Abdul got more desperate. Phillips received horrific photos of people trying to clutch onto departing planes and the aftermath of a bomb that had exploded. A photo showed bruises on the arm of a woman that the Taliban beat because she had worked with the U.S.

“It let us know, ‘we need to think about what we’re doing,’” Phillips says.

The written words were just as haunting.

One of Abdul’s emails to Phillips read: “Taliban started door to door search for government employees and USA alliance. Several translators are assassinated today. We are waiting for our turns …”

Phillips started a fundraising effort among family and friends to cover key expenses that Abdul needed to navigate the system. That, along with several ASU-related entities and connections on the ground in Afghanistan, made possible the escape of Abdul and his family into Pakistan, where they remain today until they can find a way to North America.

Throughout the process, Phillips used information from her own research, and turned to administrators, alumni and those who had experience for advice. Soon, word spread about her wealth of knowledge on refugees and evacuations. Ever since, she has been sharing information and resources with colleagues to assist others.

Phillips is part of an active working group that includes Kellie Krieser, Thunderbird for Good executive director, Lisa Loo, vice president for legal affairs and deputy general counsel, and Holly Singh, assistant vice president in the Academic Enterprise enrollment team who oversees the International Students and Scholars Center.

“I was in the right place at the right time and wanted to help where I could,” Phillips says.


Making dreams a reality

Like his university colleagues, Sabato and his team are well versed in efficiently maximizing contributions — whether it’s supporting programs that bring a mother and son closer amid unstable times or ensuring the safety and professional futures of those leaving loved ones and a country they no longer recognize in the thick of tyranny.

“Hopefully, we can set up these systems to assist and unite these efforts more broadly and serve those who are still experiencing anguish and challenge,” Sabato says.

In the case of the AUW students, ASU has committed to funding each one in the completion of her degree. Room and board, textbooks and class materials, and required supplies are paid for.

But smaller donations also play a critical role.

On a Tuesday afternoon, DeLargy met up with members of a local synagogue who have been donating personal supplies: clothes, toiletries, sunscreen and other items like gift cards from CVS.

“That’s been huge. It’s not something ASU can easily do. For donors to come in and provide some of that has been wonderful,” Edgington says.

Afghan native Zuhal Azizi, 21, knows how blessed she is to be on the receiving end of strangers’ kindness. When she found out she could earn a college degree at ASU, she immediately started doing her research. She was thrilled to discover she could earn a civil engineering degree, something that she didn’t think was within reach.

“I found out it was one of the biggest universities and I was thinking, ‘It’s my dream university.’ We were not believing that we are getting scholarships and going to a university,” Azizi says. “Everyone at ASU is helping and giving us motivation. It is like a family for us. They are changing our dreams to become real.”

Philanthropy is what makes that happen.

Connecting contributors to grateful recipients is at the heart of the ASU Foundation, as well as upholding its commitment to inclusion and creating opportunity for those from challenging backgrounds.

This means balancing the need to be adept and responsive to these students’ needs while sharing their stories with donors, while granting them the privacy and respect needed for them to be students.

“We want ASU to be a place of safe harbor but also a place of great personal growth and support, so they and their families can build productive futures,” says Roger Edgar, vice president of development at the ASU Foundation. “We’ve been very grateful that the broader community has been quite supportive of this effort.”

This runs the gamut from scholarship-worthy donations to seemingly small contributions that can be transformational.

The collaboration of Delta Air Lines and Intel to bring the AUW students here last year, and Blue Cross Blue Shield’s assistance with providing them health care are both examples of this.

There is also the furniture that was donated by alumni artists, which went to an Afghan refugee family, and there is an individual who donated gift cards and suggested the women buy new shoes as many were in need of new ones.

“There is this sense of happiness that we were able to join the dots,” Edgar says.

The ASU Foundation sees no donation as too large or too insignificant. Edgar acknowledges that the large financial gifts get students from matriculation to graduation. However, the smaller ones go a long way toward giving them a sense of dignity, which is just as vital.

“It’s important for people to realize we are in the business of creating opportunities for

these students. And we need help to do that,” Edgar says. “To anyone who’s interested in joining our journey, we’d love to walk it with you.”


The efforts continue

Meanwhile, Phillips continues her work to bring Abdul to ASU where he can start his pursuit of a better life in a safe space for him, his wife and daughter.

Phillips has been working with the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, which facilitated his family’s evacuation from Afghanistan and is working on their hopeful transition to Mexico before finally arriving in Arizona.

Phillips continues to check in with Abdul every few days. But she cannot get his emails from last summer out of her head, or heart. They stuck with her. They still do.

“Receiving a personal plea for help makes you think about the whole situation differently,” Phillips says.

It means taking the ASU Charter personally and putting into action the promise to “assume fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves.”

Service that begins with providing access to education as a means to a better life and being a university “measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed.”