“I would prefer to be an international student than an Afghan refugee” | By Tiffany Cao

Being a “refugee” is a damning identity for those in search of Western higher education. In the United States, for example, refugees seeking student visas must prove that they speak English, show that they have already been accepted by an American college, provide evidence that they will be able to pay tuition, and promise to return to their home countries after degree conferral. The last two conditions are particularly difficult for refugee students, who have left unstable political environments and often live in poverty, to meet.

“I would prefer to be an international student than an Afghan refugee,” Zekria, a student who fled Afghanistan in search of German higher education, declares. The appeal of being an international student may come from the prospect of the relative financial and political stability that students from China, India, and South Korea enjoy. International students are students who have the money to pay full tuition and have homes they can return to. International students have had the language study and schooling at home to prepare them for study in the West. Being a refugee, on the other hand, implies having few of those luxuries.

The dichotomy between the “refugee” and the “international student,” particularly in the higher education admissions experience, also speaks to a semantic distinction similar


Harvard, the hallmark of the Western higher education to which international and refugee students aspire Source: World Atlas

to the “migrant” versus “refugee” language Lauren mentioned in The Fate of Migrant Children in the U.S. The Western university system applies different policies to refugees than international students. International students are those who will not garner political or press exposure. “Refugee” status, on the other hand, implies political and press entanglements. Refugees carry a variety of perceived risks, which have the potential to translate into public outcry. Understandably so, universities are cautious in their admission of refugee students.

The university response to refugee education and accompanying expectations that the university should be doing more for refugee students are linked to expectations of the role of the West, as a whole, in the refugee crisis. Globalization and its impact on the global economy necessitate, as the existence of the World Bank and the United Nations suggests, expanded responsibilities for states. The national security and economic health of one nation has the potential to ripple through the entire world. The expectation is that by providing refugee students with Western higher education, the students can go back to their home countries and rebuild the economic, social, and political systems which drove them out in the first place. The question becomes then, as the West clarifies its stance on refugee admissions, should the higher education system be charged with the same responsibilities – to work for the good of a global system – as other international organizations have been?


  • Haynie, D. (2014, November 17). Number of International College Students Continues to Climb. US News.
  • Majidi, N. (2016, October 21). Call Us ‘Students’ Not ‘Refugees,’ say Afghans Migrating for Education. News Deeply. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from https://www.newsdeeply.com/
  • Marcus, J. (2016, October 25). Refugee students languish in red tape as they seek to resume their educations. Hechinger Report. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from http://hechingerreport.org/
  • Matarazzo, L. (2016, September 27). The Fate of Migrant Children in the U.S.: A Matter of Semantics. EdInMotion. https://edinmotion.wordpress.com/
  • United Nations. (n.d.). Charter of the United Nations, Chapter 1. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from http://www.un.org
  • Verme, P. How Poor Are Refugees?
  • World Bank (n.d.). What We Do. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from http://worldbank.org


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