After four tumultuous years, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program finally has an opportunity to rebuild and re-envision the future of refugee resettlement. Now is the time to strengthen the refugee resettlement infrastructure so that there is a better system to welcome refugees once historic resettlement averages are restored. But merely returning the resettlement system to its pre-Trump place is not enough. 

For years, the Niskanen Center has advocated for creating and expanding community sponsorship programs and initiatives to allow private sector community groups to partner with formal resettlement agencies to support refugees during their transition to the United States.

One new, innovative option for policymakers is to harness college campuses’ immense volunteer power in the form of a university-based refugee sponsorship program. A community sponsorship group may be a part of any community. Still, campus communities have diverse participants with wide-ranging skill sets that can provide the best services and improve acculturation outcomes for refugees. This piece will look at how university communities currently engage in refugee resettlement issues and support refugees and the possibility of universities acting as community sponsors in the future.

In response to growing global refugee concerns, college students formed groups to bring together students interested in supporting refugees through advocacy and direct services. Two student-based organizations — one in the U.S. and one in Canada — promote and support refugee resettlement through advocacy, direct services to refugees, and refugee sponsorship.  These include Every Campus a Refuge (ECAR) in Greensboro, N.C., and the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) in Ottawa. 

ECAR’s wide network of community volunteers supports refugees during their transition to a new country. 

In 2015, Diya Abdo, an English professor at Guilford College in Greensboro, responded to Pope Francis’ call for parishes to host refugee families by founding Every Campus a Refugee (ECAR), dedicated to hosting refugees in campus houses. I recently spoke with Dr. Abdo about ECAR’s work: as of July 2020, Guilford College has hosted 58 refugees in its college apartments and houses. ECAR has grown to an organization of over 60 universities that provide housing for refugees on college campuses and coordinate initial resettlement services through students and community volunteers. 

Unique University Resources Ease Refugees’ Transition to the U.S.

ECAR is based on the concept of an asset-based community of practice, where diverse academic disciplines and backgrounds come together to build a holistic model of support. A vast network of volunteers support refugees during their transition. Universities have specific resources particularly useful for hosting refugees, such as centrally-located housing, food, an established community, and linguistic skills, which helps support them as they begin their lives in their new communities. 

For example, international students and language studies majors can use their linguistic skills for interpretation. Education studies majors can match with the families as English tutors, and social work majors are invested in advocacy and navigating social service systems. 

College campuses are also ideally located geographically; most colleges and universities are in mid-sized or large cities with adequate transportation infrastructure and services that refugees require, such as employment opportunities, strong hospital networks, and refugee resettlement agencies.

ECAR’s flagship chapter at Guilford College trained volunteer students, faculty, refugee alumni, administrators, staff, and community members to host and provide resettlement services. ECAR is currently conducting a study on its program outcomes for refugees and students. Their preliminary results suggest that ECAR-hosted refugees had overall positive experiences, increased material support, and critical social support, which has eased their transition into the U.S. University sponsorship programs may improve connections between refugees and their new communities while engaging communities to support refugees. 

Supporting Refugees Engages Students and Strengthens Universities

Hosting refugees not only builds relationships valuable for refugees, it teaches students about issues facing refugees during and before their resettlement, building compassion, empathy, and global awareness. ECAR connects students, staff, community members, the local refugee community, and faculty to relevant issues worldwide. 

Guilford’s former vice president of student affairs, Todd Clark, emphasizes how the program reflects Guilford’s values and creates a significant learning opportunity for students who volunteer. Building on the learning students experienced when working with ECAR, Guilford College established two minors, an Every Campus a Refugee and a Forced Migration and Resettlement Studies minor. Through their involvement, students learn about the causes of refugee crises, learn from refugee voices and experiences, train in best practices on advocating for refugee issues, and implement projects that assist refugees. This learning helps shape more grounded, relatable narratives and community discourse around refugees, critical to ongoing refugee resettlement policy dialogue. 

While there are administrative barriers to creating an organization to support refugees during their transition to the U.S., these barriers can be addressed and overcome. ECAR’s founder, Diya Abdo, explained to me:

“People think hosting a family on campus is this difficult, challenging thing, because this family will need so much support. I’m here to tell you it’s not hard; it’s not expensive. You just have to find a few people to help. They (refugees) are the most resourceful people you will ever meet. You’re giving that family a house and supporting them like you would your students. It’s about empowerment; it’s about providing access.” 

Additionally, the Guilford College community benefits from its ECAR chapter through substantial alumni involvement after graduation. Alumni continue to support ECAR and their university’s program by connecting it with resources from their workplaces, promoting it on social media, offering personal donations, and recommending that their graduate schools establish ECAR chapters. This level of alumni engagement may even incentivize universities to consider establishing an ECAR chapter on their campuses. 

Universities are Ideal Community Sponsors, Even During COVID-19

Universities are also uniquely positioned to address the challenge of COVID-19. Even during COVID-19, ECAR’s flagship campus at Guilford College hosted a family of five from Venezuela and Colombia. Most of the work — school registration, employment search, ESOL tutoring — is done remotely. 

Dr. Abdo found that university campuses and community sponsorship groups are best suited to support refugee families during COVID-19. During economically, socially, and otherwise challenging times, community sponsorship organizations provide necessary emotional and social support. Universities have existing remote support to extend to both students and their hosted refugee families. 

Looking beyond host services, the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) can directly sponsor refugees.

The U.S. has a unique opportunity to pilot a community sponsorship program to expand its refugee resettlement system. One potential option is for universities to sponsor refugees directly. Canada has already done this; the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), founded in the 1920s to provide support to displaced students after World War I, sponsors refugee students to study in Canada. In addition to this program, WUSC invests in education, economic opportunities, and empowerment projects for youth. 

I spoke with Michelle Manks, senior manager of WUSC’s Student Refugee Program, which brings 130 refugee students to study in Canada annually through over 100 universities. Canada allows these students to be admitted to the country not as international students, but as permanent residents, with universities acting as community sponsors. 

Universities and WUSC Work Together to Finance Resettlement and Mobilize Networks of Support

In Canada, university sponsorship is attainable and affordable: universities finance admitted refugee students’ academic fees and initial resettlement expenses through a combination of tuition waivers, meal plans, and a small “opt-in” contribution fee paid through student organizations. 

To support partnered universities, WUSC provides cultural sensitivity training, reinforces messages of ethical behaviors and power dynamics in sponsorship, and assists alumni networks of student clubs and graduated refugee students to conduct training, as well. WUSC also assists with immigration paperwork and legal questions. WUSC also mobilizes national networks to help play a coordinating role.  

Looking to the future, Manks envisions WUSC will “rebuild a global network of students helping displaced students.” Education pathway visa programs could provide additional spaces for refugee students, using universities’ established infrastructure to support refugees during their initial transition. Already, WUSC is collaborating with Mexico and Peru to unlock university pathways for refugee, asylee, or displaced students.  

Why should U.S. universities participate in this model?

As demonstrated by ECAR, university campuses have cultural, linguistic, and professional resources to assist refugees during their transition to the United States. University involvement also engages students around refugee resettlement, educating both students and their broader community and providing them with opportunities to advocate for refugees. This solution is ideal due to the current high level of volunteer engagement on college campuses; 25.7 percent of college students are volunteers, contributing $6.7 billion of volunteer service work annually.

University-Refugee Partnerships Improve Refugee Acculturation Outcomes

Several studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of partnerships among university students and refugees. Goodkind et al. conducted a randomized controlled study of a university student-led Refugee Wellbeing Project. They found that the intervention reduced depression and anxiety symptoms and increased English proficiency, social support, and acculturation outcomes among refugee participants from communities in Michigan and New Mexico. 

Vickers et al. evaluated a mentorship program among fourth-year university students and first-year students with a refugee background. They found that cross-cultural pairings improved first-year refugee students’ transition to university life and educated fourth-year students about refugee experiences. 

Addressing Challenges in Implementation of a University Sponsorship Model

While there is much potential for the partnership among university campuses and refugee communities, a few issues must be addressed for this solution to work effectively. One potential downside of college students volunteering with refugees is the likelihood of regular turnover as students graduate and leave their college community. This can be addressed by coordinating services through designated academic advisors to ensure continuity of the relationship between the refugee community and the university. Students’ turnover can also be viewed as a benefit for refugees, as alumni networks create a wider community of support. 

Another potential barrier to implementation is ensuring that student volunteers approach working with refugees with trauma-informed cultural sensitivity. It is critical that they are knowledgeable  about key social welfare and health care systems that refugees will need to navigate during their first few months in the U.S. While volunteers with refugees often receive training through refugee resettlement agencies, the time spent training an extensive network of volunteers can be costly to a single agency. 

Therefore, one benefit of working with university students is the opportunity for student volunteers to take prerequisite courses or receive training through a community organization, to understand refugee contexts to ensure that cultural sensitivity and appropriateness are respected while serving as volunteers.

One final potential barrier in implementing a private sponsorship program is health insurance. Refugees are eligible for the same protections and benefits as permanent residents, including Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) benefits. For refugees ineligible for Medicaid, Refugee Medical Assistance (RMA) is available for up to eight months after refugees arrive in the U.S. After that period runs out, universities may choose to make their insurance available to resident refugees ineligible for other government programs. However, this could be viewed as an additional option for universities, not as a requirement, as other federal and state-coordinated benefits are available for newly arrived refugees. 

For the United States to pilot a refugee community sponsorship program, significant changes to the legal system would need to happen. Additionally, as the U.S. is having difficult conversations about student debt for U.S. citizens, it could potentially be politically infeasible to extend assistance to refugees. Also, refugee students could face the challenges of having their student visas rejected or the wait associated with security clearances. 

Other Ways that Universities Can Take Action Now

Outside of a piloted sponsorship program, universities still have resources to support refugees during their transition to the United States: 

  • Offering scholarships to refugee students without sponsorship;
  • Providing free online courses for credit that lead to recognized university credentials and improved employment opportunities;
  • Providing flexibility in admissions and credentialing guidelines;
  • Allowing refugee students to access in-state tuition during their first year in the United States. Three states – Virginia, California, and Washington, specifically exempt refugee students from paying nonresident tuition.


An enthusiastic and dedicated volunteer base is critical to a well-functioning refugee sponsorship program, but sponsorship groups’ opportunities extend beyond church congregations and civic organizations. College campuses have a wealth of resources, the organizations to bring volunteers together, and the enthusiasm to engage in refugee issues. Using the resources of university communities is an exciting opportunity to leverage support for refugees efficiently. 

Photo Credit: Guilford College