A ‘Backpack’ Helps Refugee Students Store and Share Credentials

This article first ran in IIE Networker magazine and appears here under an agreement with IIE (the Institute of International Education) and the authors.

In the second year of the war in Syria (2013), I sat across a table from a young engineering student in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp.  She told me of the problems she had applying to local universities because she had been told again and again that she couldn’t even start the process because she didn’t have an official transcript. Reaching into her backpack, she pulled out a folder with a copy of a piece of paper that listed her most recent grades and courses, and said, “But see! I have just a few more classes to graduate.”

Like many refugees, this almost-engineer had secured in her backpack evidence of her substantial educational achievement. The documents were among her most prized possessions because she expected, and reasonably so, that other institutions of higher learning outside of Syria would accept them and allow her to continue her studies where she had left off. That expectation was frustrated by the realities of an admixture of the tightly regimented world of university admissions and a confusing array of bureaucratic policies that often serve to cloak prejudice and discriminatory practices against refugees.

Problems with academic documentation—items like incomplete transcripts, missing diplomas and unrecognized professional certifications—are major barriers to higher education for refugees from the war in Syria. As the war has continued, it has become even harder, costlier, and more dangerous for them to secure authenticated copies of official academic documents from Syrian university and state institutions. At the same time, due to high costs and lack of access, credential evaluation and the identification of course equivalencies, often the key to moving between systems of higher education, are out of reach for most refugee young people.

While some displaced students from the war in Syria have made the transition to higher education, the vast majority have not. The statistics from Lebanon are perhaps the most telling. Although Lebanon now hosts more than a million Syrian refugees, fewer Syrians are enrolled in higher education there than before the war. At the Lebanese University, Lebanon’s only public institution of higher learning, Syrian enrollment has declined each year since the conflict began. Throughout the region, the anticipated enrollment of young Syrians has not kept pace with need, and even more troubling is the precipitous decline in women’s attendance, which before the war was over half of those enrolled.

The Article 26 Backpack™, named for the article of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that affirms education as a human right, is a novel humanitarian tool that adapts existing and emerging digital capacity and elaborates new best practices in refugee assistance, to empower refugee young people to better connect with global and local higher-education opportunities. It represents a major shift in the way refugee and vulnerable young people will be able to overcome the bureaucratic, institutional, and cultural hurdles they face as they seek to exercise their human rights.

Guides present the Backpack to refugee students in Lebanon.

And the backpack, of course, is the universal emblem of the student.

With the help of the Ford Foundation, and in collaboration with the American University of Beirut and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), the University of California at Davis developed and has begun the implementation of the Backpack in Lebanon, and will continue to foster its use among refugees and vulnerable young people throughout the Middle East. First developed with a grant from the Open Society Foundations, the Backpack addresses barriers to higher education by combining digital technology, face-to-face counseling, cloud-based computing, and the work of highly-trained credential evaluators to help refugee university students and other vulnerable young people store and safely share educational documents with universities, employers and scholarship agencies; in limited cases, it can provide a way to have their academic credentials assessed and educational histories reconstructed.

How Does the Article 26 Backpack™ Work?

At its most basic, the Backpack is a backpack—a simple way to store documents and images. But it is also much more.  It rests on a robust digital platform developed, maintained, and hosted by UC Davis, draws on the talents of multilingual “Backpack Guides” and the builds from a broad collaboration of refugee educational nongovernmental organizations; universities, most notably the American University 0f Beirut; and national and not-for-profit credential-assessment agencies and organizations.

With the help of trained Backpack Guides, usually students themselves from the host society, refugee students open their Backpack through a secured registration process, and become “Backpackers.”  They enter information about their educational history and then begin to upload into the Backpack items including résumés, certificates, letters of recommendation, transcripts, and diplomas.  If they don’t have digital copies, Guides and Backpackers work together to photograph documentation and upload images. In addition to the safely-stored documents, Backpackers can make a short video statement of purpose called My Story/My Future. This video is a critical part of the Backpack as it forms a narrative framework that gives a human meaning to the documents.

As we tell Backpackers, the Backpack and its contents belong to them and them alone, and they have the right to share those contents in any way they see fit. This is a core human-rights idea underpinning the Backpack. It is also one that turns the notion of the institution or government-controlled educational document—transcripts for example—on its head. Instead, it brings a student’s privacy rights and right to control their digital identity into alignment with prevailing ethical and human-rights standards. Once a Backpack is filled, Backpackers can use the tool’s “share” functions to provide its contents to admissions officers, scholarship agencies, possible employers, and credential-assessment professionals in a manner that is both safe and end-user friendly.

Alongside the digital platform, Guides, and university and nongovernmental networks supporting the Backpack and Backpackers, AACRAO is building a community of credential and assessment professionals who can connect with the Backpacks and, where possible, engage in the evaluation of documents, answering questions about their validity and how it might translate into different systems of higher education. The cloud-based nature of the Backpack will render the vast distance between Backpackers and those who can help them meaningless. Collectively, the Backpack’s contents form the raw materials for one of the most difficult challenges to reconnecting young people with little or no documentation to higher education: credential reconstruction.

Watenpaugh and Backpack Guides explain the cloud-based tool to refugees in Lebanon.

Just like a physical backpack, the digital Backpack has pockets that could contain additional features which would help refugees and vulnerable young people exercise their human right to education. We can imagine the Backpack working to support various forms of educational credentialing, helping expand access to scholarship opportunities and as an effective way to introduce refugee students to career and educational guidance and counseling. We are also eager to find ways to make the Backpack more broadly available as a way to lessen the possibility that it might be considered a stigma of vulnerability or refugee status.

Our ultimate goal is to have the Backpack perceived by its multiple users as form of “currency.” In other words, as the Backpack circulates in educational and employment circles, the degree to which it can adhere to and even establish best practices, and is trusted by all parties, the higher the probability it will be able to empower refugee young people to better achieve inclusion and academic and vocational success.

The Article 26 Backpack™ in the Field

In mid-November 2017, the consortium of UC Davis, the American University of Beirut, and AACRAO engaged refugee young people with the Backpack at three locations in Lebanon, including two refugee camps in the Beqaa’ Valley. Graduate students from the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University who had been trained as Backpack Guides met with refugee university students who work as teachers in schools established by Jusoor, a leading refugee education organization.  Together, they opened Backpacks, recorded My Story/My Future interviews, and explored how the human and digital elements of the Backpack work (and do not work) in the face of actual field conditions.

The outcome of the exercise exceeded expectations, and more surprisingly so, as they took place against the backdrop of a difficult political situation in Lebanon. All of the Backpack’s complex human and digital parts were in operation and functioned. Where those elements did fail, that experience was welcomed and will inform the way we revise and adapt the Backpack going forward.

I also was able to see in concrete terms whom the Backpack can help and why that help is important.  At Jusoor’s elementary school near the town of Chtoura in the Beqaa’ Valley, one of the refugee university student/teacher Backpackers, whom we call Jammal, explained in his My Story/My Future interview that he wanted to finish his degree in teaching to return to Syria and help rebuild it. Jammal, however, had spent several years as a political prisoner and upon release was expelled from his university. With the war, he fled to Lebanon illegally. He has no access to official avenues for securing academic documentation and is someone for whom credential reconstruction may be the most effective means to help him return to his studies.

Listening to Jammal, who spends his days teaching children from a nearby camp, speak about a past of torture and imprisonment with candor and without rancor, who views his education as right and duty, reminded me of what is being lost as this generation of young Syrians are denied their right to education.

Keith David Watenpaugh is a professor and director of human-rights studies at the University of California at Davis, and is director of the Article 26 Backpack project.

Co-Authors: Melanie Gottlied is deputy director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers; Hana Addam El-Ghali is the senior program coordinator for research, advocacy and public policy making at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.


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