refugee students transitioning to higher ed

Help refugee students transition to tertiary ed and everyone wins

Young people from refugee backgrounds face a raft of complex challenges when entering the Australian education system, stemming from common experiences of disrupted prior education and trauma. Due to a range of factors including limited social and cultural capital, students from refugee backgrounds in most cases need additional guidance and encouragement to attend university.

The Australian education system is not well equipped to meet the needs and expectations of students from refugee backgrounds given the diverse nature of the complexities facing them. Educational researchers have noted  the critical need of mentoring programs in schools for refugee students to help them successfully transition to university.

With my colleague Ruth Tregale, I explored the key benefits derived by refugee students from a mentoring program where university students mentored high school refugee students. In this post I want to tell you about our research study and what we found.

An interesting key finding was that students from refugee backgrounds wanted an opportunity to contribute to the Australian society and they saw education as a vehicle towards that.

Refugee intake and higher education

Approximately half of Australia’s refugee intake is aged between 15 and 19 years of age, an age when education is a priority. It is therefore of both local, national and international significance to explore the consequences of such movements into the Australian higher education sector and to develop programs and strategies to support students from refugee backgrounds to participate meaningfully and achieve success in their studies. 

But there is very limited support to these students in their transition to higher education. It is therefore critical that universities develop specific strategies and programs to engage students from refugee backgrounds with the aim of increasing student motivation and self-confidence, and to increase their awareness of higher education possibilities.

Peer to peer mentoring

Over the years, peer to peer mentoring has been part of universities’ initiatives to foster smoother transitions as part of the university experience and to increase student retention. In fact university students have been academically assisting peers in college and university campuses since the 1700s. The retention of students is now considered equally as important as the attraction of them, especially with the increasing diversity amongst recent university student cohort. 

At Macquarie University there is a peer to peer mentoring program, called LEAP, that has been working closely with Refugee Student Programs Advisors at the NSW Department of Education and Communities since 2011. The program has engaged 754 high school students from refugee backgrounds who have connected with 357 Macquarie University student mentors. The mentoring program runs twice a year over an 11-week time frame at nine schools across West and South Western Sydney. The stated aims of this program are to:

  • develop confidence, resilience and agency
  • raise aspirations towards further study
  • develop social and cultural capital to navigate the tertiary education system
  • develop study and research skills, including ICT skills 
  • develop awareness of school and university cultures and expectations in the Australian context 
  • develop an understanding of available educational pathways and make decisions regarding appropriate pathways
  • increase refugee parents’ and communities’ understanding of tertiary education pathways

Our research

There is a small body  of work that addresses the educational experiences of refugee youth, however research on mentoring programs for students from refugee backgrounds is an underdeveloped area of research.

Our study aimed to add to existing knowledge by examining the impact of the Macquarie University LEAP program on both school student refugee mentees and university student mentors.  It involvedfive focus groups, individual and semi structured interviews with 54 school student mentees and diary analysis of 45 university student mentors. For more details of our methods please see our full paper.

Benefits for high school refugee students (mentee)

Identification and knowledge about university

We found the program increased high school refugee students’ knowledge about higher education and provided them with information on how to access higher education. Students felt more engaged in schools.

Comments during focus groups included:

  • I’ve now done more search about uni life. I have been doing my maths homework and improved a little
  • It made me feel part of university already and provided me good tips about support available for students at university.
  • I have a clear idea how to study and prepare for enter a university.
  • I’ve now done more search about uni life. I have been doing my maths homework and improved a little.
  • It helped me realise I am now part of university too even though I am in high school. 
  • I saw the university students come to my school. I was surprised to see them. They looked like me (sic) age and were here to talk to me about university. I didn’t hear about Macquarie University before but now I feel I am a very special part on the university. I came on a campus visit and felt I knew this place. I belong here

Sense of Purpose and increased academic skills  

Focus group data from mentees highlighted the program increased their academic skills, interest in higher education, sense of direction and purpose about their future, and self-efficacy (beliefs in one’s ability to accomplish one’s goals). This was illustrated in the following quotes

  • I can talk more now in class and I feel confident putting my hand up in class and not getting worried the answer might be wrong.
  • Being part of the program has helped me in my communication skills and now I am my class captain. It was a huge achievement for me because it made my parents very proud.
  • I have made more friends in school now as I am no longer scared about my future. I now know there are many pathways to university. 
  • The program has made me research and work way harder to reach my goal. It has also made me finish my assignments rather than leaving it to the last second.
  • The program has really helped me a lot in my time management, I have learnt that managing time and studying more is really important to achieve my goals.
  • Makes me look at things in a more positive view. Very inspirational.
  • I want to be a civil engineer when I grow up and I know I can do this in future.
  • I am more organised and am getting better at setting goals. I have started to study more and my time management has been better before exams.
  • The program has made me think a lot about what I want to become. It has also taught me all about goal settings and it has helped improve my time management. The program has encouraged me to try hard and be who I want to be. 


Gaining new knowledge is empowering and the knowledge exchange between mentor and mentee has been a fundamental process within the program, an outcome of which has been that the mentees have become better equipped to make informed decisions about their educational pathways.

More importantly mentoring contributes to the development of educational and social capital for students to develop confidence, resilience and agency. Resilience is a word that is often associated with refugees and yes the research participants involved in this style demonstrated a lot of resilience. It is because resilience is a coping mechanism for students from refugee backgrounds against the barriers to accessing and succeeding in higher education. Resilience gives hope and comfort.

Benefits for university students (mentors)

University Student Mentors also indicated that having shared values and interaction with faculty staff members made them aware of their purpose in life, that university increased their academic skills, and their positive perception about the value of higher education and overall provided a sense of satisfaction.

Best practice includes training and support for mentors, which enhances their personal development and employability. The following quotes from the mentors outline some of these benefits:

  • Seeing mentees more confident about what they are doing and their future career goals.
  • Helping others to achieve their goals. Helping myself to gain better communication skills.
  • Has given me a broader understanding of students within a refugee background and has provided me with the ability to help those who truly deserve it.
  • It gives me an opportunity to give back to the community and in return my mentees provide me with new perspective.

A key feature that emerged from the diary analysis was reflections of how the mentoring program helped mentors progress at university as shown below. Aliases have been used in the below extracts from diary analysis:

  • Sarah’s Diary: We did the goal setting section today and I made my own list too that I shared with my mentee. I want to finish my degree and apply for post graduate certificate. The aspirations my mentee has inspires me to dream higher too.
  • Oliver’s Diary:  Today I realised my communication skills are improving because of this mentoring program. I used to struggle before in my group work at university because I am an international student and I couldn’t make my points clear to my group members. Talking to these school students weekly, I have learnt to express myself more clearly and in simple language.
  • Wong’s Diary: When my mentee asked me how I manage my time I couldn’t answer her. I am very bad in time management. I decided I will work on it, make a priority list and meet my deadlines. Next session we shared our time management ideas. I feel I am a good mentor now but I am getting to be a better student.

Our study’s findings could be used to inform policy makers and both high schools with refugee students and universities who hope to enrol them.

However, the research is not without limitation, relying on a relatively small sample obtained through convenience sampling strategy. Future research could focus on a longitudinal approach to assess the impact of the program on university student’s academic skills and impact on grades.

Sonal Singh is Manager Student Equity at University of Technology Sydney. She has 10 years’ experience in working in the higher education sector in designing, implementing and leading evaluations for  outreach programs and equity programs for future and current university students from  disadvantaged background. Sonal has led two National Priority Pool Competitive Projects in 2017 and 2018 :  “LEAP-UP — University Preparedness: Developing a Tertiary Enabling Program for Low SES Students from Refugee Backgrounds” and “LEAP-Links (Digital Literacy): Developing the ICT competencies of regional and remote low-SES students”. Sonal is on Twitter @SonalSingh2

Read the full paper From homeland to home: Widening Participation through the LEAP -Macquarie Mentoring (Refugee Mentoring) Program