College Would Benefit from Welcoming Scholars at Risk

Due to various global crises, many international graduate students have been unable to continue their studies. Graduate students in Ukraine face displacement due to shelling and mass violence. Since the Taliban’s return to power in 2021, Afghan female scholars have been banned from attending university. Scholars in both countries have been given an ultimatum: leave all of their work behind or fight for their educational pursuits. 

Oberlin College’s official motto is “Learning and Labor.” However, a more popular mantra has been placed on admissions pamphlets, brochures, and posters: “Think one person can change the world? So do we.” This quote emphasizes how Oberlin bases its values upon serving the greater community. Students aren’t just attending Oberlin to take classes and work a job; they are here because they have broader intentions of contributing to society. This same standard applies to faculty and staff, too; many applied to work here because of values geared toward global-oriented thinking. 

This has been demonstrated through the College and community’s response to international crises and inequities. After Russia launched a full-scale invasion of  Ukraine in February 2022, Oberlin faculty held a teach-in and students organized protests. In September, Oberlin announced a partnership with the United Nations and the Global Foundation for the Performing Arts. In collaboration with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, Oberlin is extending opportunities to students unable to afford tuition and housing costs. The Oberlin community has taken steps to respond to global events, but further action is needed. 

There has been less discourse on campus about Ukraine since spring 2022 and no acknowledgement of humanitarian violations in Iran from the College. Despite widespread media coverage of continual atrocities committed in both countries, there hasn’t been much recent action in the Oberlin community. It is not possible for Oberlin to address and alleviate every international issue, but there is value in reflection. It’s important to take time aside to consider whether more action can be taken collectively. What efforts can we take to support those just like us — individuals with educational passions and a desire to change the world?

A part of Oberlin’s large endowment should be used to aid scholars at risk. As of June 2021, Oberlin’s total endowment was at $1.272 billion. I’d argue that this leaves at least some room for support for the international community. By support, I don’t mean solely donating money. Oberlin has a unique opportunity to foster international learning by hosting scholars temporarily. In order for Oberlin to uphold its values, there needs to be further action in the international arena. Providing educational accessibility to scholars at risk is the right way to do that. 

Scholars at risk are individuals in higher education who have been prohibited from continuing their studies due to regional conflict, ideological pressure, or other factors. The Scholars at Risk Network has a database of scholars from Afghanistan, China, Ethiopia, Syria, and Yemen. For one academic year, a scholar can stay on campus as a lecturer, program assistant, researcher, or student. 

A scholar at risk would be a valuable asset to any Oberlin department. Hosting an individual from another country allows for international research. Learning from individuals with different experiences and backgrounds is essential to fully evaluating any topic. Instructors from the program could hold lecture series, workshops, and teach-ins. Learning about geology, history, or education from an international perspective is a unique opportunity not available at every American institution. 

Additionally, scholars at risk would have the ability to engage with Oberlin’s many identity-based groups like the Chinese Students Association, International Students Organization, or African Students Association. Scholars at risk not only bring their intellectual achievements, but also cultural contributions. They could take advantage of teaching ExCos in their home language and organizing cultural events. There would be opportunities for scholars at risk to experience and share elements of their culture in a new environment. 

An exemplary model of a Scholars at Risk program is at Harvard University. Here, scholars are given a stipend and insurance coverage, and their travel costs are covered. “The Scholars at Risk fellowship is intended to provide a safe environment for a scholar to pursue research and scholarly or artistic interests,” the program website reads. 

Beekan Erena, a 2015–16 scholar at risk from Ethiopia, has gone on to write 33 books in four different languages. Before attending Harvard, Erena was stalked, arrested, and beaten for his efforts to advocate for the Oromo ethnic group. At Harvard, Erena honed his writing skills, researched, and raised awareness about inequality in Ethiopia. Through this program, Erena was given the security to pursue his humanitarian vision. 

At Oberlin, we often take for granted the ability to publish articles, create artwork, and write books. Erena was not afforded this opportunity in his homeland. By reaching a hand out to scholars at risk, we can help ingenious, devoted, and creative students pursue their educational goals. 

A Scholars at Risk program may not be traditional, but Oberlin has never claimed to be that. Changing the world doesn’t always take one person; it takes a community.