Displaced students find educational refuge in Kentucky

Legislature created the Kentucky Humanitarian Assistance Scholarship which helps refugees, asylees continue their educations

By: - July 28, 2023 5:40 am

Lisibeth Ochoa Borjas and Robert Musa, students at Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, are among the first recipients of the Kentucky Humanitarian Assistance Scholarship created by the legislature in 2020. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Abbey Cutrer)

When Lisibeth Ochoa Borjas flew from her native country of Venezuela to Kentucky to visit her family, she never expected that it would become her new home.

Ochoa Borjas, 39, came to the Bluegrass State in 2019 to see her brother and his family. But when COVID-19 hit, Venezuela closed its borders for a year, and Ochoa Borjas decided to create a better life for herself in the States.

“In Venezuela, we don’t have food, we don’t have electricity. The water is dirty, it’s not clear; it’s yellow or brown,” Ochoa Borjas said. “My parents said, ‘You can’t grow up here. You have an opportunity, please stay (in the U.S.).’”

That’s when she discovered the Kentucky Humanitarian Assistance Scholarship, a program funded by the Kentucky General Assembly that helps displaced students who have been in the U.S. for five years or fewer pay for college.

Lisibeth Ochoa Borjas earned a degree in architecture in Venezuela and is working on an associate’s degree in business management at Bluegrass Community and Technical College. She stood for a photo at BCTC’s Newtown campus on July 19, 2023, in Lexington. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Abbey Cutrer)

Ochoa Borjas said she graduated with a degree in architecture from Venezuela’s Santa Maria University in 2007. Now, she is on track to graduate in 2024 with an associate’s degree in business management from Lexington’s Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC), financially supported by the Humanitarian Assistance Scholarship. 

“The scholarship saved my life,” Ochoa Borjas said. “I feel amazing because I can study something I love.”

This scholarship is part of the Kentucky Innovative Scholarship, a two-pronged pilot program including the Humanitarian Assistance Scholarship and the Scholarship for Cultural Exchange for students participating in study abroad programs.

State Sen. Chris McDaniel

The 2022 General Assembly appropriated funds to the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority (KHEAA) and the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) to distribute to the universities. It is up to the individual institution to allocate scholarships to its students.

McDaniel the catalyst

The Kentucky Senate’s budget committee chair, Chris McDaniel, was the catalyst for including $10 million in the state budget to launch the scholarships. McDaniel, R-Ryland Heights, said the legislature is now awaiting a total of how much has been spent.

McDaniel said the vision behind the Kentucky Innovative Scholarship is twofold: to help those in need and to show to the rest of the world that “Kentucky’s a good place.” He said that the recent “destruction of … educational capabilities” in Ukraine and Afghanistan revealed a need for support among all displaced populations, which he hopes this program will provide. 

“When they find themselves, through no fault of their own, unable to access that basic and ancient human ideal of education, being able to stand in the breach and really provide for those people is a good thing,” McDaniel said, especially as Kentucky will reap economic benefits by adding “to our talented workforce.” 

Becky Gilpatrick

Becky Gilpatrick, KHEAA’s director of student aid, said that no more than 25% of a college’s Innovative Scholarship funding can go to the study abroad scholarship, ensuring that the majority goes to support individuals known as “displaced students.”

“We’re talking about students who are refugees or asylees that are coming to the United States and are in a position where they’re ready to go to college, or they’re having to leave their colleges … to come to the United States. For whatever reason, they were having to flee their home country,” Gilpatrick said.

Seeking safety, finding a future

One such student, Lola Triumph-Abatan, said she and her two children left their native country of Nigeria in 2019 because of “a family issue.”

“I just needed a place of refuge; I needed a place of safety for me and my kids,” she said.

Triumph-Abatan, 49, is earning her associate’s degree in nursing, and she said she plans to pursue a bachelor’s as well as a doctorate after graduating from BCTC in 2025. 

Before leaving Nigeria, she said she earned an undergraduate degree in business administration and a master’s in communication, but it wasn’t until she started on her nursing degree that she found her true calling.

“ ... the single greatest moment in my life.”

– Lola Triumph-Abatan, when she discovered she could receive financial assistance through the Kentucky Humanitarian Assistance Scholarship

“I know my passion is in caring for people. I’m very passionate about people, and it’s what I’ve longed for a very long time ago,” Triumph-Abatan said. “That’s where my joy is … I have a lot of goals, and I’m dedicated to making sure that my life impacts other people.”

She said that the Humanitarian Assistance Scholarship is “one of the best things,” opening the door for her to discover her love for nursing while supporting her family in their new home.

“Without the scholarship I wouldn’t have been where I am today, my dreams, my aspirations,” she said. “My goals would not have been a reality because going to school, the most important challenge I had was in financing myself.”

Triumph-Abatan said that when she learned she could receive financial assistance through the scholarship, it was “the single greatest moment in my life.”

First cohort: 146 students from 25 countries

According to Gilpatrick, in fall 2022, 146 students from 25 different countries received roughly $1.8 million in funding as part of the scholarship’s first cohort. KHEAA and CPE are awaiting data for the spring semester from the participating colleges, but Gilpatrick said that she is expecting a significant increase in the number of students who received assistance. 

Lauren Reyes

Gilpatrick said that 23 postsecondary institutions across Kentucky participated in the scholarship’s pilot program, including four community and technical colleges, eight public universities and 11 private institutions. 

Lauren Reyes is the assistant director for international student success at Western Kentucky University. She said that 15 WKU students received funding from the scholarship in spring 2023; according to Reyes, WKU has a robust international population due to Bowling Green’s status as a refugee resettlement city.

Reyes said that the students who receive the scholarship, many of them considered non-traditional due to their age, have faced considerable challenges to get to where they are. However, thanks in part to the Humanitarian Assistance Scholarship, they are now able to begin or continue their college education.

“They sometimes have to start over with their education, but they feel like hopefully creating more opportunities to have a better life here and kind of move on into an employment that uses their skills,” she said. “So we have some adult returning learners who have some really incredible stories, and we also have some students who, you know, came and their studies were disrupted. … It’s been neat to see people from a variety of circumstances come in and see education as an option.”

BCTC has welcomed a large community of international students, and Erin Howard, associate dean of global learning, said the campus received 91 applications and awarded the scholarship to 77 recipients, as BCTC allocates the funding as a “last dollar” scholarship.

“Many refugee students do qualify for Pell Grants, especially those who graduate from Kentucky high schools. … So let’s say a student received a full Pell Grant, then they would only receive  the difference in funding (from the Humanitarian Assistance Scholarship),” Howard said. “We didn’t want to spread the dollars too thin, because we wanted to be able to serve as many people as possible.”

English proficiency isn’t a requirement for receiving funding; Howard said English language learners at BCTC take an exam that places them in the appropriate English language course, which can count toward their graduation requirements.

“The scholarship outcomes are going to look a little different depending on the goal of the student and their English language ability, as well as their level of education prior to coming,” she said.

BCTC student Robert Musa, a scholarship recipient from Rwanda, is currently taking English courses, which he said will help him reach his career goals. 

Musa, 39, said he moved to Kentucky a year ago to join his wife, who has lived here for seven years, and to escape the conflicts and war back in Rwanda.

Robert Musa was a social worker in Rwanda. He is working at BCTC to become more proficient in English before diving into a degree program, an opportunity that he says would not have been possible without the scholarship. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Abbey Cutrer)

Before immigrating to the U.S., Musa earned a bachelor’s degree in social sciences in 2008 and worked as a social worker for the Rwandan government. Now, he is enrolled in his second semester at BCTC and working on his English proficiency before diving into his degree program.

“I decided to join BCTC to kind of learn English and to be able to communicate with people and also to see how it can lead to my goals,” he said.

After graduating from BCTC, Musa said he wants to continue his education at the University of Kentucky and earn a master’s degree, and he credits the Humanitarian Assistance Scholarship for his success thus far.

“It is very helpful for me because I couldn’t be able to pay my school fees; it was very difficult for me,” Musa said.

Bigger than any one institution

Karen Slaymaker, associate director for International Student and Scholar Services at UK, said the Humanitarian Assistance Scholarship offers an unprecedented opportunity for displaced students in Kentucky to access higher education. 

While various programs in the past financially supported international students, Slaymaker said the Humanitarian Assistance Scholarship is unique in that it is intended specifically for displaced students.

“I’ve been at UK since 1996, and I cannot think of another time where we’ve been able to reach this many,” she said.

Slaymaker’s colleague, Caitlin Johnson, who works as the Sponsored Student & Scholar Coordinator in UK’s International Center, said UK awarded the scholarship to around 20 students for the spring 2023 semester.

Johnson and Slaymaker said that while each individual college awards its own scholarships from the Humanitarian Assistance fund, the program is much bigger than any one institution or organization. Instead, the state has formed a “community of practice” that includes KHEAA, CPE, the participating colleges and refugee resettlement organizations like Kentucky Refugee Ministries that together make the program possible. 

“Kentucky is on the cutting edge with this program. ... It has really, I think, touched the lives of students and made things possible.”

– Becky Gilpatrick, director of student aid, Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority

Lee Nimocks, CPE’s senior vice president, said the goal of this community of practice is to create a space where participants can learn from each other and better meet the needs of their students.

“We know that several of our institutions had been in this space and doing good work, but we also know that these are students who need, you know, certainly a lot of support. They need additional counseling; many of them come from trauma in their own home countries,” Nimocks said.

She added that while the scholarship is meant to support displaced students financially as they continue their education, the ultimate goal is to provide a way for them to become “thriving members of Kentucky’s community.”

“Education is transformational,” Nimocks said. “The more that in Kentucky we can do to support our low-income students, students who have been excluded from postsecondary opportunities over the years, and really anybody in the state who is interested in advancing their training and education, that’s what our mission is.”

However, the future of the Kentucky Innovative Scholarship and its constituencies is uncertain; because it is funded by the General Assembly, the program is only budgeted for two years — which means it is slated to end next summer. The General Assembly will have the opportunity to extend it during the 2024 session.  

McDaniel, chair of the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee, said his long-term goal is to create a space within the commonwealth that invites “highly ambitious young people” from around the world to come and find a home here, bringing their unique dreams and ideas with them. 

Before next steps can be taken to continue the scholarship, though, he said the legislature first needs to evaluate the program’s effectiveness and make sure it is providing a return to taxpayers.

Gilpatrick said that she hopes the program will become a more permanent fixture, providing a concrete option for displaced students wanting to continue their education.

“Kentucky is on the cutting edge with this program. There’s really no other state in the nation that is doing anything like this for this group of people — refugees and asylees — and giving them some kind of state assistance,” she said. “It has been a lesson in immigration for a lot of us who have been involved, but it has really, I think, touched the lives of students and made things possible.”

Triumph-Abatan expressed her gratitude for KHEAA and the other partners within the community of practice; she said that she is praying for an extension of the program and hopes that the state knows she and her fellow cohort members are not taking this opportunity for granted.

“We want to make them proud, want to make something good and great out of it (and show) that their investment is worth it,” Triumph-Abatan said. “I want to actually make Kentucky proud.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.