Tino Nyawelo

Finding Refuge in Education


by Lisa Potter

On a balmy morning in May, 10 newly graduated high schoolers and their families filed into the Sorenson Arts & Education Complex on the University of Utah campus, greeting one another with excited chatter. The parents beamed with pride—many of their sons and daughters were the first in the family to attend college. Tino Nyawelo, assistant professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, smiled at the crowd, thinking of his own journey to the university against overwhelming odds. He cleared his throat and quickly won over the room.

Nyawelo was addressing the 2018 cohort of the Refugees Exploring the Foundations of Undergraduate Education In Science (REFUGES) Bridge Program. Based in the Center for Science and Math Education (CSME) at the U, the program aims to encourage underrepresented students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education at the university level. The seven-week bridge gives freshmen the opportunity to earn credits toward their degree and provides the funding for their tuition, meals, and housing.

Many of the undergraduates are recruited from the REFUGES Afterschool Program, which has provided tutoring, STEM workshops, and college prep and financial aid classes to more than 200 underrepresented students in Salt Lake City. Nyawelo and community partners founded REFUGES to address the challenges faced by refugee youth, minorities, women, and economically disadvantaged students in Utah schools.

Nyawelo, whose family fled violence at the outbreak of the Sudanese civil war, drew on his own experiences to help build REFUGES from the ground up. He fell in love with physics as a high school student in South Sudan, then left the unrest in his country to pursue graduate studies in Europe. When Nyawelo joined the U faculty, he wanted to pay it forward.

Tino Nyawelo

“I see myself in those kids who are brought here as refugees, maybe haven’t had schooling in the camps, and have no English. It’s such a big transition,” explains Nyawelo, director of REFUGES and of diversity & recruitment for CSME. “I’m so passionate about this because I got a lot of help with my education along the way. Mentors and outreach programs in Sudan linked me to my PhD and post-doc studies, and I didn’t pay a penny for my education. Now, I want to give back.”

Bridging the Gap

During the summer bridge program, the students live in the dorms, go on excursions, and tour research labs together to build a strong sense of community. Through the Department of Mathematics and the U’s LEAP learning community, they take two courses that count toward general education credits. During the academic year, bridge students continue LEAP and engage in internship and research experiences. The small class sizes and supportive instructors and administrators help ease the transition.

“A freshman in college has so many things to keep track of, from general education requirements to registration deadlines, financial aid, etc. It can be pretty overwhelming,” says Allyson Rocks, academic coordinator for CSME, who runs logistics for the summer bridge. “The bridge program is a good way to get used to college life instead of getting it all dumped in one semester.”

Both the REFUGES summer bridge and after-school programs have been part of the CSME since 2013. The partnership was a perfect fit; one of the center’s core missions is to increase access to U STEM programming, says Jordan Gerton, director of the CSME. Yet REFUGES is unique in that it sets nontraditional students up for success as undergraduates long before they begin college applications.

“When students aren’t getting a lot of support at home—their family is working, doesn’t know English very well, doesn’t know the school system—they’re much more likely to fall behind, even if they have talent and determination,” says Gerton. “We can’t change the school system, so REFUGES went outside of school to provide that support to keep them moving forward.”

The summer bridge is funded by the Barbara L. Tanner Second Charitable Support Trust, and the CSME and the College of Science support the salaries of the REFUGES staff. The program’s tutors are mainly paid by grants, including from the Department of Workforce Services and the Sudanese Community in Utah. They also receive contributions from individual donors.

Being part of the U helps the students access an amazing team of undergraduate tutors, many of whom went through the REFUGES program themselves. “We hire those students because they look like the REFUGES students. In my experience, I was always unique in my field of theoretical physics. Most of the time, I was the only black person. That’s hard,” says Nyawelo. “Seeing someone who looks like them gives them confidence. They say, ‘If you made it to the U, and you came, like us, as a refugee, then we can make it, too.’ ”

The After-School Program

Like many bridge participants, Jolly Karungi, a member of the 2017 bridge cohort, has had REFUGES in her life for years. Karungi began the after-school program in 2015, a year after moving to Utah following time in a refugee camp in Uganda. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Karungi, her aunt, and her siblings lived in the camp for three years, then moved to Kampala, Uganda, for another three years before being resettled in Utah.

“When I came here, I didn’t speak any English. I didn’t understand what was going on,” she explains. “I had to catch up. This program helped me a lot.”

The after-school program provides homework tutoring three times per week and includes hands-on STEM workshops for grades 7 through 12. High schoolers take ACT prep courses and financial aid workshops. The program has become a family affair; Karungi’s three younger siblings are participating, and their older brother, Fiston Mwesige, couldn’t be prouder. “They have been through many, many things in the refugee camps. So, when they came here to a completely different system, they needed some guidance to find their way,” says Mwesige. “Now, they spend most of their time thinking about the future, what they can do, how they can help the community, and how they can make the world a better place.”

The years of hard work have already paid off—Karungi recently received a full-ride scholarship to the U from the Alumni Association, and she loved living on campus with her friends over the summer. REFUGES offers more than purely academic support. “People are not just helping you with math and science problems, they’re also helping you with your personal problems,” says Karungi, who is beginning her sophomore year this fall. “It’s the best thing about it. They really care about everyone.”

The REFUGES Afterschool Program helps nontraditional students at two locations: the U campus and the Salt Lake Center for Science Education. This year, all 10 REFUGES high school seniors from the U site were admitted to the U, and seven were offered full-ride scholarships to the U or Westminster College. In all, the group was also offered more than $98,000 in FAFSA scholarships. From the Salt Lake Center for Science Education, 17 seniors were accepted to the U, and the 25 students who completed FAFSA received more than $200,000 in scholarships.

Building Refuges

In 2016, more than 65 million people were forced to flee their homes worldwide, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. Of those, nearly 22 million were considered refugees. Approximately 60,000 refugees live in Utah, the vast majority of whom live in Salt Lake County, according to the U’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

To Nyawelo, the numbers are more than just statistics—many of his friends have resettled in Utah, as well as his wife and her family. While pursing graduate studies in Europe, he flew to Salt Lake City frequently, moving officially in 2007 to join the U faculty.

“I knew a lot of refugees in Utah. Some of them were my classmates in South Sudan. I was lucky—I got a scholarship, I went to university. Some of them decided to leave because of a lot of unrest, and they ended up here in Utah. I felt like I was home,” says Nyawelo.

In 2009, he and other members of the refugee community began noticing high rates of school dropouts. After visiting homes, hosting town hall meetings, and organizing a youth summit, a pattern emerged; many refugee youth come to Utah after being in camps for years with little English and intermittent formal schooling. When they arrive here, the school system places them in a grade based on their age, leaving many feeling left behind.

The partners came up with the REFUGES program to help. After winning a grant from the Refugee Services Office, the program expanded to help other communities experiencing similar problems, such as immigrant populations and economically disadvantaged students. There is nothing comparable to REFUGES, explains Gerton, because both Nyawelo and the Utah refugee community are one of a kind.

“This would not be at all possible without Tino…. He built this with his partners from scratch,” says Gerton. “He comes from one of the key refugee communities on Earth, South Sudan. He also happens to be a scientist who also happens to really want to help the community.”

—Lisa Potter is a science writer for University Marketing & Communications.