All young talent deserves the opportunity to shine
Selecting a career path is one of the most daunting decisions for many people, anywhere and of any age. It is no longer unusual for an individual to change directions in one’s career, and making multiple shifts is increasingly becoming the norm. The rapid changes in economic behavior, in borders, in population movement, rising environmental challenges and the quick dissemination of information are but a few of the factors that are dictating choices in a fast-moving world. These changes are also inspiring new choices, and providing opportunities for creativity and diverse initiatives outside established norms. But, even with all the fluidity a globally connected social and economic environment encourages, education remains a key component of how an individual thinks and what they end up doing, especially when they have to start making life-affecting decisions at the tender age of 16, 17 or 18.
Scientists tell us that the human brain continues to grow beyond childhood, especially brain areas that are key to executive functions and decision-making. This is one of the reasons teenagers are sometimes seen by adults as strange creatures, capable of making irrational decisions that can drive their parents to the edge of their patience. But that is also why those years are crucial in laying some bases for future behavior, as the young personality acquires experiences that allow it to make difficult decisions during the teenage years as well as in future stages of life. Facing hardship of any kind during this critical age can leave a particular mark on one’s personality, and the effects can have life-changing consequences for the person involved and for those with whom they interact later on in life.
In a previous column, I encouraged the readers of this page to spare a thought for Syrian youths as summer begins this year. With graduation pageantry taking place all around the world, it is difficult not to encounter an ecstatic graduate donning their gown in the streets of major cities and college towns, or a proud parent decorated with their best attire and proudest smile. A small number of Syrian youths are participating in these celebrations. While some of them have made it into college and are gradually receiving degrees and honors while beating many odds, for the majority of Syrian youths and children, the prospect of even making it to college remains a distant dream, if one at all.
For the majority of Syrian youths and children, the prospect of even making it to college remains a distant dream, if one at all.
A number of projects have looked into the reality of higher education for Syrians who have had to leave their homes since 2011. Studies published by the Institute of International Education (IIE) in 2013 and 2014 outlined some of the many challenges and issues Syrian students (or should-be students) were facing in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The IIE published three reports, which were produced in collaboration with the University of California, Davis and funding bodies. Bleak as the picture these reports portrayed some five to six years ago were, the state of affairs has undoubtedly worsened, if only by the sheer increase in the number of people who have had to flee their homes in Syria. A major hurdle many Syrian youths face today is the cost of living, let alone university fees and other expenses associated with going to college. These costs apply to Syrians as they do to all international students, be it in these countries or elsewhere.
The IIE Scholar Rescue Fund has since dedicated special efforts to supporting Syrian scholars, and has established a number of collaborations that have so far sent 106 of them to 80 institutions in 14 countries. Universities such as Cambridge, Oxford and Yale, among many others, have either created special scholarships for outstanding Syrian students or have partnered with grant makers, charitable institutions or philanthropic individuals to offer places for displaced individuals.
Like all spots at highly rated universities, such scholarships are very competitive. But what is most important to note is that universities require a comparable and verifiable standard of prior education for candidates who have suffered adversity just as they expect from students who go through the regular admissions process. In fact, Syrian students do go through the regular admissions process. The only difference is that, in some cases, they might have a slightly higher chance of receiving financial aid when special programs offer specific funding opportunities for refugees, displaced individuals or Syrians in particular. As a result, the successful candidates are individuals whose circumstances have allowed for the required precollege education to be achieved. Very few parents, or indeed youths, are able to obtain the required qualifications in the current circumstances. In extremely rare cases, a student might get precollege support in order to be eligible to compete for a place a top-tier institution, but those opportunities are so few that I have only met one such lucky recipient.
There is a huge gap for educational philanthropy to fill. Of the 5.6 million Syrians registered with the UN Refugee Agency this summer in the Middle East and North Africa alone, and the 13.1 million the UN says are in need of help inside Syria, many are young, capable and motivated. The world needs such youths. Like all the graduates who are beaming with pride and excitement this summer, they too deserve that their growing brains be given an opportunity to develop healthily and their personalities offered a chance to thrive. They are undergoing hardship, but they have every reason to succeed.
- Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo” (OUP, 2018). She is currently Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London and Associate Fellow of Pierson College at Yale.