Reflections on the OLIve Course

I spent 3 months working for the OLIve (Open Learning Initiative) program with the University of East London (UEL) completing an internship as part of my Master’s in Public and Global Health at the University of Tampere in Finland. What I experienced from this internship will always stay with me. I have never met such an inspiring and strong group of people. From the courage and resilience among the students, to the passion and dedication from the UEL staff running and contributing to the program.

Asylum seekers in the UK face multiple barriers preventing their settlement and integration into this country. Some of those barriers include, but are not limited to, lack of access to education, the labor market, language ability, and health care. The OLIve program is a free 10-week program that has been running for 4 cycles now and is designed to help bridge the barrier to higher education faced by asylum seekers in the UK. Asylum-seeking persons wishing to enroll in higher education must pay international student fees, creating a substantial financial barrier for many in accessing higher education, and they are also not eligible for grants and financial support. The OLIve program also prepares students by helping them to develop academic English skills to enable them to pursue higher education in the UK, and informs students of further study options such as foundation programs and scholarships for Bachelor’s and Masters programs. For some students, this was their only option to enroll in a study program, and provided a chance for social interaction with others in similar situations. There were also academic lectures given by lecturers from UEL, some who were refugees themselves, which covered topics as Gender and the Asylum Process, Construction of Identity, Globalization, Mental Health, Everyday Bordering, and Business and Management, to name a few.

The students came from diverse backgrounds. Some had professional careers, some had completed or were enrolled in previous higher education, and some had secondary school education. Yet all attended with the same purpose, to study and obtain employment and become active members of their communities in the UK. The students had varying levels of English competency, and language can prove a substantial barrier to integration as it limits educational and employment options. The OLIve program seeks to address this by not only providing English classes to improve listening and speaking skills, but also academic writing to help prepare students for academic study in English as well as public speaking to improve their confidence. Education is also an empowering tool and provides opportunities for social interaction and sense of belonging, and as such is an important part of integration and a way to become involved in their community.

Barriers to education and training limits the options for paid employment after asylum seekers have received refugee status, which limits their ability to obtain financial independence. Limiting educational opportunities can condemn people to low earning jobs where they may struggle to provide for themselves and their families, and therefore limiting the choices they can make in relation to their living conditions. Asylum seekers do not get to choose where or who they live with, and some of the students travelled for hours from outside of London to attend. Some of the students attending the OLIve program even had stories of dangerous and crowded living conditions, where they faced violence and harassment. Attending the OLIve program gave them

the opportunity to discuss their situation with other students who were either able to offer advice on who to contact, but also provide moral support.

Language in the media often points to refugees as victims, instead of telling stories of resilience and determination. But the people I have met have a strength and purpose I had not witnessed before. Refugees are survivors and have a lot to contribute to their communities when given the right opportunities to thrive. The OLIve program provided a safe environment in which to have discussions and to allow the sharing of stories and opinions with others who were in similar situations, and also provided guidance as to their options for further study. Without the recognition of their skills, we leave a large amount of economic potential and enriching social participation in our communities untouched.

It was an absolute privilege to watch the students thrive during the time I spent with them. Not only did their English skills improve, but they gained a new-found confidence and sense of hope for the future and flourished in an environment where they were supported and encouraged. After getting to know them and hearing their stories firsthand, it was impossible not to see why the program facilitators had such a passion for helping them and breaking down barriers to higher education.

Originally published in UEL OLIve Course Blog.