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IU Refugee Task Force celebrates its first graduates

Jul 2, 2024

A woman wears a mortarboard over her hijab Neda, who fled Afghanistan when the Taliban rose to power, is graduating with a bachelor's in economics from IU Bloomington. Photo courtesy of IU Global

Neda was just four credits from completing her bachelor’s degree when the Taliban again rose to power in Afghanistan in August 2021. As a student at the U.S.-backed American University in Kabul, she was immediately in danger. After a rapid and chaotic evacuation from the country’s capital, Neda — who we are calling only by her first name to protect her family who remains in Afghanistan — spent a year and a half in a refugee camp in Iraq before getting the opportunity to complete her degree.

This summer, Neda is finally graduating with a bachelor’s in economics from Indiana University Bloomington, along with three other students supported by the IU Refugee Task Force.

Indiana University has long supported students who fall in the liminal space between traditional international students and domestic students, but it was not until 2019 that an official organization was proposed. The IU Refugee Task Force went from proposal to active interdisciplinary community in 2021 in response to the emergent need created by the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The goal was to ensure that the specialized needs of prospective or enrolled refugees, asylees and displaced persons were smoothly met while they studied at IU.

What had previously been an individual effort became a robust community of support chaired by Rendy Schrader, senior director of international students and scholar programs and initiatives. Schrader leads a steering committee that engages across all aspects of a displaced student’s experience. Staff from international and domestic admissions, the dean of student’s office and financial aid, as well as representatives for faculty and post-graduate communities, work with Exodus Refugee staff to drive university policy and structure to better support displaced students.

The task force has also identified staff across campus services to receive additional training and act as direct contacts for students once they arrive. To date, 27 undergraduate students and 13 graduate students have been enrolled, with 14 receiving full financial support from the task force. A class of 26 is expected to enroll for fall 2024.

“I can’t say it was easy,” Neda said. “It was hard, but it wasn’t impossible, to be honest, because of Rendy.”

A woman in a cap in gown Nargis Orokzai, a student supported by the task force, recently graduated from the IU O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs with a Master of Public Affairs. Photo courtesy of IU Global

Three years after the task force was formed, its impact is being recognized not just by students like Neda, but by organizations like WelcomeCorps, the President’s Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration and Exodus Refugee. IU Bloomington is one of just 17 university campuses designated as a Welcome Corps USA institution. As a part of this Department of State-run program, qualified prospective students living in refugee camps are identified and brought to the IU Bloomington campus to complete their degrees. For World Refugee Day 2024, Schrader was honored as Refugee Advocate of the Year.

Exodus prides itself on being a fierce advocate for refugees, but it is definitely easier to accept things the way they are,” Exodus Refugee interim resettlement director Erin Aquino, said during remarks before the presentation of Schrader’s award. “However, many times it requires us to work harder and advocate at all levels to make change. Rendy Schrader is one such person. She has endeavored tirelessly to ensure refugees have access to higher education in Indiana.”

Nargis Orokzai, another student supported by the task force, recently graduated from the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs with a Master of Public Affairs.

“I had been planning on doing my master’s for years, but there are so many barriers,” she said. “It’s really hard when you’re in multiple countries trying to prepare and apply to universities.”

Originally from Kabul, with two undergraduate degrees from American University, Orokzai had been applying for a Fulbright award to study for her master’s in 2021. When the Taliban came to power, she got a letter from the U.S. Department of State notifying her that the Fulbright program in Afghanistan was being terminated.

She and her husband left Afghanistan to seek out family in Germany, arriving first in France. Over several months, Orokzai navigated the European immigration system while trying to apply independently for graduate programs in the U.S.. She was delighted to be accepted into the O’Neill School, which was her top pick. But living with family in Germany, and without additional resources, meant the initial merit-based scholarships weren’t enough. She was on the cusp of turning down the offer when Schrader contacted her and said, “I cannot promise anything, but let me try.”

A few months later, after many phone calls, emails and texts, Orokzai got the response: Schrader had identified additional funding, and she would be able to attend IU. Within a week, Schrader met her at the Indianapolis International Airport to bring her to Bloomington.

“Studying at O’Neill was a life-changing experience for me; studying here was amazing,” Orokzai said. “There’s such a culture of inclusiveness. It was incredible to meet so many brilliant students with such different backgrounds, but at the same time you feel that you’re so familiar with each other.”

The culture of inclusivity extends beyond the classroom and into the campus and Bloomington community. In the absence of the parents and siblings that Neda has not been able to see in four years, she said IU has become her family and community, and one she intends to reinvest in.

“It feels home for me,” she said.

A woman poses in cap and gown by a sign that says Ferguson International Center Mina Shafaei, 2024 graduate of the Kelley School of Business, learned of the task force while working for Rendy Schrader to welcome other international students. Photo courtesy of IU Global

Mina Shafaei, 2024 graduate of Master of Science and Information Systems at Kelley School of Business, represents another challenge in supporting displaced students: finding them. In the same situation as Orokzai and Neda, Shafaei had applied to and enrolled at IU on her own without knowledge of the task force’s resources.

“I know how it feels when you come here and know nobody,” Shafaei said. “I see students coming to the U.S. for the first time to attend IU, and the Office of International Services helps them so much. It makes me so happy that new students are getting that kind of support. People here are always willing to help you.”

In fact, she initially learned of the task force while working for Schrader to welcome other international students. It was not until later that she discovered that she herself qualified for assistance.

The drive to give back to and build within the community is a theme among the students supported by the IU Refugee Task Force. In addition to completing her master’s, Orokzai and her husband run the Turkuaz Café and intend to start a nonprofit to bring educational opportunities to children who have not been able to leave Afghanistan. Their endeavors are a microcosm of the $122.1 million in state and local taxes that refugees contributed to Indiana’s economy in 2022, according to the American Immigration Council.

Neda, the first undergraduate student supported by the task force to graduate, echoes Orokzai’s and Shafaei’s feelings about her time as a Hoosier. She also had some advice for future students, whether refugees or not.

“Everyone should know that at IU, they are not alone,” Neda said. “You have a community that is willing to help you with your mental health, with your medical issues, with your classes. It’s everything.”

Anyone interested in building this community and supporting future Hoosiers by can contribute to the Eugene Chen Eoyang Displaced Individuals Scholarship.


IU Global

Marielle Petranoff

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