Abstract: Community As Intermediary in Education Pathways of Congolese Refugee Youth (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Community As Intermediary in Education Pathways of Congolese Refugee Youth

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 13, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Odessa Gonzalez Benson, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Ana Paula Pimentel Walker, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan
Mieko Yoshihama, PhD, Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Irene Routte, PhD student, University of Michigan, MI
Background: For refugee youth and their parents, schooling experiences are a key domain of integration into a local host community. Secondary schools and colleges in resettlement cities, however, struggle to provide adequate educational support for them due to challenges related to age, interrupted schooling, and language barriers. Individual-level perspectives focus on youth, parents, and/or educators as micro-level sites of agency. Structural-level perspectives meanwhile focus on dynamics in macro systems, such as in policies, racism, and segregation in schools, that delimit individual educational opportunities. Both perspectives yield crucial insights. However, the role of refugee communities at the meso-level as the subject of inquiry remains largely unexamined.

Methods: As part of a participatory action research (PAR) conducted in collaboration with a refugee-led community organization (RLO) and a student organization in a midwestern urban area of the United States, we organized a higher education pathway program for Congolese refugee youth and young community leaders. PAR has been applied in research with refugees, whereby refugee communities are involved in knowledge development and research is conducted with aims of practical impact. Seven individuals attended a one-day program, with a workshop, campus tour, and meeting with university administrators, and participated in individual interviews about experiences related to higher education. As an extended phase of the PAR, plans to form a Youth Leadership Council was developed in coordination with the RLO. Using methods of thematic analysis, faculty and student researchers analyzed interview data, augmented by a review of field notes and meeting minutes. Emergent themes and interpretations were repeatedly discussed among researchers. Analysis also involved ongoing (reflexive) examination of research processes, reflecting on priorities, and aims raised during planning and implementation. Throughout the process, we consulted with members of collaborating organizations and community partners.

Findings: Findings illustrate how individual-level factors (such as procedural, technical and linguistic challenges) and structural-level factors (such as school policies and discrimination) impede education of Congolese refugee youth, consistent with previous scholarship. Further, our analysis highlights the community as an intermediary between individual agency and structural challenges, and as a source of both support and responsibility for refugee youth. Results also point to the need to educate the Congolese refugee community about higher education, but also the need to educate the university about refugee education and the community’s pivotal role in doing so. Our findings offer a three-level (individual, structural, community) framework of education pathways for resettled refugees.

Discussion: Insights gained from our PAR process and our findings point to need for a three-level framework for action: ongoing sustainable action including continued programming for youth (individual); advocacy for more refugee-inclusive university policies and procedures (structural), and broader outreach to engage diverse stakeholders (e.g., community and faith leaders, parents) from the refugee community. The next steps of our PAR include continued efforts towards capacity building with RLOs and members of refugee communities and improved education and career pathways for refugee youth.