Applying to college can be a difficult process even under the most optimal conditions.

For refugee and immigrant teens with parents whose first language isn’t English, it presents unique challenges. Here’s how recent Virginia Commonwealth University graduate and Afghan refugee Wajma Soltan navigated her application experience.

When I first arrived in the United States as a teenage refugee, I spoke four languages, but none of them was English. My Richmond, Virginia, high school lacked a strong ESL (English as a Second Language) program, and, as a result, I struggled through most of my first year. The next year, as a sophomore, I transferred to a school a few towns away with a better ESL program and began to take an interest in biology and other sciences. By my senior year, I knew I wanted to attend college, then medical school, but I had no idea where to start.

As the first child in my family to go through the college process in America, I had to start with the SAT® exam, which almost halted my dreams of higher education altogether. While I performed well in my classes, the material I was to be tested on felt entirely unfamiliar, especially the verbal section. With the help of my ESL teacher, I was able to register for and take the exam, but my score meant that I’d need to enroll in ESL classes in college as well.

Because the whole process felt so overwhelming, I took a semester off after graduating from high school. I used this time to research what I needed to do next. Although my parents were eager for me to go to college — one of the reasons they fled Afghanistan was to seek safe educational opportunities for me and my siblings — as refugees in a new country, they had no idea how to get me there and no money to contribute toward it.

In addition to figuring out how to submit the application itself, I had no choice but to navigate the entire US college system on my own. For example, I had to learn the difference between a community college and a four-year school. I also found out that I had to budget for and purchase books for each of my classes. I spent months researching colleges that were close to where I lived, and I worked diligently through the application materials for a single school — Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). I continued to rely on my kind and generous ESL teacher for guidance.

To graduate cum laude from VCU with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry took bravery on my part, and I’m proud that I overcame the obstacles I did.

Six months after high school graduation, I was accepted into VCU to study biology as part of the school’s honors college. The next hurdle was understanding financial aid. I had no clue what the FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) was or how to navigate what my loans did and didn’t cover. Luckily, I did end up qualifying for federal aid based on my FAFSA, and I received both direct subsidized and direct unsubsidized loans. However, during my first semester of college, I took a reading and writing ESL course that ended up falling outside of my financial aid package, and I received overdraft charges to my bank account. If I had known that, I might have considered taking out additional private loans before the semester started. Instead, I had to pay $4,000 out of pocket for that class, which required working part-time as an assistant at a doctor’s office while attending school and asking my parents to help cover my groceries and other necessities. It was tough for sure, but to me, the value of my education was more than worth it.


Image courtesy of Wajma Soltan

Looking back, I wish I’d had a parent or someone close to our family to guide me through the complex process of applying to and starting college. These are the kinds of challenges a refugee child faces on a daily basis. To graduate cum laude from VCU with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry took bravery on my part, and I’m proud that I overcame the obstacles I did.

Today, as a volunteer with VCU’s global education office, I work closely with refugee students who are in the process of applying to or just entering college and whose experiences mirror my own. I’ve also been able to guide my younger siblings through this experience in the way I wish my parents had been equipped to do for me.

What my parents were able to give me despite the language and experience barrier was a constant sense of perseverance and support. In Afghanistan, my father served in the army and my mother was a teacher at a girls’ school before the Taliban shut it down. No matter how many challenges they faced to bring my siblings and me to America, they never gave up. That taught me to face any obstacles that accompanied applying to college head-on, with dignity and grace.

Interview for this article was conducted in 2020.

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