Wheaton College has just 1,650 students, but undergrads at the Massachusetts school hail from 76 countries.
That’s why almost immediately after President Trump ordered a temporary ban on entering refugees from seven majority Muslim countries, school officials considered ways they could extend a helping hand.
The private liberal arts college located in Norton this week announced the Wheaton Refugee Scholarship, a full-tuition award for a student escaping conflict in their home country.
The scholarship gives preference to students from the seven countries mentioned in Trump’s immigration order: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The president's order, issued a week ago, lasts 90 days. Wheaton’s scholarship is open to refugees who are already in the U.S., as well as those still trying to escape their countries.
Annual tuition at Wheaton, plus room and board is about $61,000. School officials said the college will cover "all costs of attendance," even the $60 application fee.
“Students from all over the world who wouldn’t be here without financial support, my hope is that they go back and become leaders in their own country,” said Wheaton President Dennis Hanno. “And the world is a much better place for the opportunity we provided them.”
Hanno said the school has students currently enrolled who are from the countries listed in Trump's ban. He wants the scholarship to send a strong message to students and the world — not so much a political statement, but one about “maintaining the diversity and unique atmosphere” of his campus.
From Syria alone, there are an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 college-age refugees, according to Shiyam Galyon, a campaign coordinator with Books Not Bombs.
The group is a student-led campaign to create academic scholarships for Syrian citizens at American institutions by partnering with the nonprofit International Institute of Education Syrian Consortium.
Galyon said she was excited to hear about Wheaton’s scholarship.
“This is the strongest leadership we’ve seen from higher education,” she said. “We encourage more university presidents across the country to do something similar.”
Education, she said, is "human right."
“You don’t need to be the genius in your class to deserve to go to school,” she said. “There are a lot of qualified students, but the cost of higher education, especially after years of conflict, is unattainable.”
Alexandra Weber, chief program officer with the International Institute of New England, said many refugees escape to the U.S. not just for a better life but also for a college education, either for themselves or for their children.
The institute provides resources to refugees and immigrants who have been resettled here. Before a refugee can think about education, though, they often have to focus on finding a job, English lessons or skills training.
Weber hopes to see more schools set aside slots for this population, like Wheaton has.
“It's a really, really important message to happen right now. I think the world is watching us,” she said. “We have families torn apart by this order … they’re going to need reassurance that culturally, all our institutions are committed to humanitarian work like this.”