Zeina Abdul-Samad, left, a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, visits with fellow Syrians Bashar Alisber, center, and Muzaffar Al Zoubi at the school’s Bronzeville campus last week. They all received scholarships from IIT.
By Michelle Manchir, Chicago Tribune reporter
September 25, 2013
Access to high-profile internships and helpful professors and tutors are only partly why Zeina Abdul-Samad said her year at the Illinois Institute of Technology has been “like a dream.”
The 23-year-old from Homs, Syria, remembers the frequent bombings there. She recalls seeing fellow students get shot near Al-Baath University campus, which she attended until the summer of 2012.
Any violence she hears about near the Bronzeville campus she goes to now is “no comparison” to what she confronted when attending computer science classes on her Syrian campus, she said.
“Here, people are walking, listening to the birds, but there you hear bombings, shootings — but you have to go there because it’s your education,” Abdul-Samad said.
Abdul-Samad is part of a cohort of about 34 students with ties to Syria who study at the Illinois Institute of Technology as part of a 35-school international partnership that aims to bring Syrian college students to a safe campus.
Two Illinois schools, IIT and Monmouth College in Monmouth, Ill., are hosting about 44 of the 70 students awarded scholarships from U.S. colleges since last year.
The scholarship program is organized by a consortium brought together in 2012 by IIT and two nonprofit groups that champion access to education, the Institute of International Education and Jusoor, which was founded by a group of Syrian expatriates.
The scholarships give the students a chance to continue their higher education in a place where they don’t have to risk their lives to get to campus, said Daniela Kaisth, the Institute of International Education’s vice president of external affairs.
Universities have become high-value targets for combatants in Syria, and many are closed or inaccessible to students, Kaisth said.
Education can be among the last of the institutions protected when a country is at war, said institute CEO Allan Goodman.
“It’s not at the top of the list for armies and governments that are trying to intervene,” Goodman said, but “if you’re not caring about it, thinking about it, you can pretty easily destroy the next generation.”
In January, explosions at a university in Aleppo, Syria, reportedly killed at least 87 people, including many students taking exams. In March, 15 students reportedly were killed when a mortar shell hit Damascus University.
Many of the schools in the U.S. consortium offer full or partial tuition waivers to students who qualify and who also have the academic background, English language skills and the resources — be it citizenship or access to a visa — to get to the U.S. to study.
Chicago’s IIT has led the way, officials said, offering more scholarships than any other college in the consortium. In 2012, the school offered its first batch of scholarships, bringing in groups of several students at a time as they were able to get the necessary visas. More enrolled at the beginning of this school year.
Officials at IIT also worked with Monmouth College to launch that school’s Syrian scholarship program, bringing 10 students to campus for the current school year. Two other Illinois schools, DePaul University and Illinois State University, also are part of the consortium.
Gerald Doyle, a vice provost at IIT who helped initiate the program, said he became interested in reaching out to Syrian students after a family friend told him about two young Syrian women who needed a place to study.
“When you’re in Chicago, you’re in a global community,” Doyle said. “There’s nothing that happens in the world that doesn’t touch a neighborhood or a family in Chicago.”
College officials said the students who have come to the U.S. and earned the scholarships are extraordinary in their drive and ability.
The first chair violinist in Monmouth College’s orchestra is a new student from Syria, said the school’s president, Mauri Ditzler.
Abdul-Samad, who arrived in IIT’s first group of students in 2012, started classes two weeks late but still ended the school year with a 3.9 GPA and credentials that earned her an internship in New York City with Goldman Sachs, she said.
Another IIT student who arrived in 2012, Raed Tawil, 22, a native of Homs, said he felt like teachers on the campus “unlocked my brain” shortly after he started attending classes related to his electrical engineering major.
“This is a great environment for someone who is ambitious,” said Tawil, who decided he needed to stop attending Damascus University last year after he witnessed a bombing near the university that damaged part of the school grounds.
“It was so dangerous,” he said.
There are many more students in Syria who could use similar opportunities, officials say.
Kaisth estimates there are hundreds of thousands of students still in refugee camps who lack access to schools. Many may not have the financial resources or English language skills to get to the U.S. easily, and the institute is attempting to reach out to more schools in the U.S. and in other countries to take them in.
Abdul-Samad said she has many friends who remain in Syria, including some recently graduated, who are “doing nothing.”
“Many Syrian students are very smart, and when I was in my university, I wasn’t like one of the top students, I was an average student. So when I think about what these students could achieve here, I feel very bad because we’re losing a generation,” she said. “An educated generation.”
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