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School At Any Cost Refugees make it to Kansas City from the world’s most difficult places. Then they try to make it through community college.

By Barbara Shelly

Photographs by Julie Denesha

Souleymane Adam looked around at the crowd of runners in shorts and singlets, everyone humming with nervous energy as they waited for the start of an early season junior college cross country meet.

Unlike the other competitors in their team uniforms, Adam wore a white T-shirt. This meet was a tryout. He was a skinny young man with limited English from an urban Kansas City high school, looking for an entry into Johnson County Community College, a gleaming campus in the Kansas suburbs.

The sports season was underway, but Adam hadn’t completed all the necessary steps to enroll in school. With limited English and little help, he found the process confusing. The cross country coach told him he could participate in the meet as an unattached runner, meaning he wouldn’t be part of a team and his performance wouldn’t count.

The starter’s gun fired and Adam took off. Running was the easy part. He’d been doing it all his life.

As a child, he fled with members of his family when soldiers stormed their village in Darfur, the territory in western Sudan known as home to the 21st Century’s first genocide.

As an impoverished schoolboy, Adam sprinted barefoot to and from school. He ran to escape teachers who beat him and classmates who tormented him because of a medical condition. As a teenager, he ran to escape his dead-end life.

Now he was running to go to college.

He finished among the leaders.

“We need you,” the coach told Adam after the meet. The next school day, she speed-walked him through the rest of his admission requirements.

Two years after arriving in the United States with a large family, no money and no comprehension of English, Adam, at age 21, was a college student.

Intro to School

Instructor Ashley Lynd teaches English as a Second Language at Penn Valley Community College.

The Kansas City area is home to three agencies that work with the federal government to resettle people displaced from their home countries by war, conflict and persecution. Despite harsh limits on refugee resettlement imposed by President Donald Trump’s administration, those agencies — Jewish Vocational Services, Della Lamb Community Services and Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas — welcome enough people to make refugee families a presence in the metro.

While not all resettled refugees find their way to a college campus, educators say those who do are highly motivated. They share a core belief that education is the way to escape the soul-crushing factory and custodial jobs to which their immigrant parents are usually consigned, and vault their way to the American dream.

“They’re here because they have a purpose,” says Holly Milkowart, chair of the English for Academic Purposes program at Johnson County Community College, which is where most students who are not native English speakers start out.

Instructor Ashley Lynd helps Asende Ebumbe with sentence structure during an ESL class at Penn Valley Community College.

“They want to learn. They want to get a degree. They want skills, they want to improve their family's lives,” Milkowart says.

But even more so than other low-income students and students of color (who will soon make up the majority of United States high school graduates), refugee students face unique obstacles on their first rung of the college ladder, which for most is a community college.

“They’re here because they have a purpose.”

Their challenges start with a boggling admissions and financial aid process that requires documents they may not have, and deadlines they may not understand or meet. Lacking luxuries such as laptops and internet connectivity at home, would-be students often try to fill out applications on cell phones. Without parents or advisers to help them, many end up paying more than they need for classes.

Those who enroll often find their English insufficient to understand what’s going on in class. Their U.S. high schools — often located in high-poverty parts of town — may not have prepared them adequately for college math, science or writing.

Most refugee students work to support family members here and, often, in the impoverished nations they left behind. And they are called upon to use their halting English to enroll younger siblings in school, take family members to medical appointments and field calls from landlords and bill collectors.

But while the challenges that refugee students confront are similar, their lives and stories are vastly different.

From Darfur to Overland Park

An art class assignment led Souleymane Adam to draw a scene depicting his family's flight from their home as soldiers stormed their village in Darfur.

In perhaps the biggest twist in a tortuous life, the circumstances that made Souleymane Adam’s childhood a living hell became the catalyst that brought him and his family to America.

As a child living in Darfur with his grandfather after his parents had fled the country, Adam suffered from urinary incontinence. The distressing condition turned school into a daily ordeal of beatings and bullying. But it lit an entrepreneurial spark in the boy; he sold paper napkins for a few cents to perspiring passengers on city buses, earning enough to purchase shoes and soap to wash himself and his clothing.

In time he and his grandfather opened a small store underneath a tree in their yard.

But by the time he was an older teenager, now reunited with his parents in a refugee camp in Chad, Adam’s condition had left him isolated and hopeless. He couldn’t get close to people, invite friends to his home or finish a day at school.

“All my childhood is being in war and separated from my family and living with my sickness. I can’t imagine my future.”

Photo: Students in a class at one of a dozen refugee camps in the eastern part of Chad. Since 2003, these twelve camps have hosted more than 300,000 people who fled conflict in Sudan’s Darfur, according to the European Commission’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations. Souleymane Adam and his family were among them.

Credit: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations/Flickr

“Sometimes I would sit by myself and wonder what I did wrong,” he says. “All my childhood is being in war and separated from my family and living with my sickness. I can’t imagine my future. I was just living day by day.”

The one decisive opportunity Adam perceived led back to Sudan, where rebels in Darfur continued to clash with government-armed militias. Twice he tried to make it to the border, but both times was caught and escorted back to camp.

After his second attempted flight, a camp doctor got in touch. Knowing of the teenager’s torment, he volunteered to ask United Nations resettlement officials to move Adam’s family up on the list. The process could still take a couple of years, he cautioned.

But a few months later, Adam was on a plane with his parents and siblings, bound for Kansas City. They arrived in August of 2014.

A staffer from Jewish Vocational Services, the area’s largest refugee resettlement agency, took Adam to Truman Medical Centers, where a doctor wrote a prescription for his urinary problem. Within a month it was gone. Adam hugged the physician and wept in his office. For the first time, he dared to envision a future.

On the wall of his parents' home in northeast Kansas City are family photographs and a caricature of Adam in his running uniform.

Like many refugee and immigrant students, Adam was assigned to East High School in the Kansas City Public Schools. Students there speak more than 40 languages.

Classes were underway when Adam entered East in the fall of 2014. Speaking through a translator, the principal told him that, at 19, he was too old to enroll. Plus, he spoke no English. Adam begged for an opportunity.

“I was afraid I’d be working my whole life with no chance to get an education,” he says.

The principal assigned him to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

Adam stayed at East the better part of two school years. At first he couldn’t comprehend what was going on in class. He watched YouTube language tutorials at home and ran his lessons through online translation programs. By the time he earned his diploma in the spring of 2016 he was fluent enough to place in the second of four tiers of Johnson County Community College’s English for Academic Purposes curriculum. A Pell Grant (federal aid for students with financial need) and an athletic scholarship made the classes affordable.

While Adam chose a college in the suburbs, most of his high school classmates stayed closer to home.

From Myanmar to East High

Paw ie Mer, a member of the Karen people, spent several years in a refugee camp in Thailand before moving to the United States. Now she's a student at Penn Valley Community College.

Every winter, seniors at East High School climb into buses for the short ride to Penn Valley Community College. Within a few hours, they will have toured the campus, filled out applications and completed the placement tests necessary for enrollment. For some students, the campus five miles from their high school is their backup plan. For many, it’s their only plan.

Penn Valley, one of five campuses in the Metropolitan Community Colleges system, is more affordable than four-year colleges. In-district tuition for a full-time load of 12 credits is $1,236 a semester, and many students have scholarship and grant options available. Penn Valley offers a robust English as a Second Language program and flexible schedules for students with multiple commitments.

Paw ei Mer remembers being swept along with her classmates three years ago.

“My adviser from high school took us here and set us up,” she says. “So I am here and most people I know from high school are here too.”

Mer’s father, Kpaw Klay, grew up in a rice-farming village in Burma (the southeast Asian nation now called Myanmar) and never attended school. He is a member of the Karen ethnic group, one of several minority groups in Myanmar which have clashed over time with the Burmese state.

“If we didn’t learn they hit us with a stick.”

Klay was 14 when the Burmese military stormed his village and ordered everyone out. He moved with his family from place to place before landing in a camp for refugees in Burma. There, he reunited with Marry Htoo, a girl he had known from his childhood village. Eventually they married and had three children.

Soon after their middle child, Paw ei Mer, was born, more conflict drove the family to a refugee camp in Thailand. Mer remembers attending school in a small bamboo building. Teachers seemed determined to pound the basics of grammar and multiplication into their young students.

Paw ie Mer as a child (center), with her brother (left) and sister; the baby on the floor is a cousin.

“If we didn’t learn they hit us with a stick,” Mer says. “I think the reason the teachers were not kind to us,” she adds, charitably, “is because they want to make us smarter and also they want us to be respectful.”

Mer was 10 when her family was accepted for resettlement in the United States. Their first stop was Spokane, Washington, where Mer got her first experience of school in America.

“I was scared,” she remembers. “I was afraid the teachers would be the same as in Thailand. But they were nice.”

Her father had trouble finding work around Spokane, so after a couple of years the family moved to Kansas City. They rented a home and joined a Karen congregation that meets in a church in Kansas City, North.

On the front porch of their home in northeast Kansas City, Mer’s mother Marry Htoo adds ingredients to a traditional noodle and curry dish.

Mer enrolled as a seventh grader at East, which then served grades 7 through 12.

People who work with young refugee students cite multiple roadblocks to their success in school. To start with, parents usually don’t consider it their business to engage with the school or their children’s teachers.

“They think it’s disrespectful and embarrassing,” says Meaghan Fanning, youth program manager at Jewish Vocational Services.

Most refugee parents come from cultures where schooling beyond the earliest grades is optional. They may not grasp the importance of regular attendance, especially when teenagers — girls, in particular — are needed at home for child care and translation duties. Some cultures expect girls to marry at young ages.

But Mer’s parents encouraged education and she thrived at East High School. Her brother, who is two years younger, is also enrolled at Penn Valley.

Kpaw Klay, his daughter Paw ie Mer and son Kaw thaw Htoo at home in northeast Kansas City.

For Mer, college brought some bumps. She tested into the highest level of Penn Valley’s ESL curriculum. But she struggled with the grammar and writing expectations her first year, earned low grades and lost a scholarship.

For some first-generation students, the college experiment would end right there.

“They go to Penn Valley for a semester, and then nobody helps them with the classes the second semester, or nobody sticks with them,” says Fanning.

But Mer found a way to pull herself out of that early academic hole: “Work harder than I used to and ask people to help me. I have one friend, she’s really, really helpful. She reads what I write and corrects some mistakes and she tells me why.”

Two and a half years later, the rhythms of community college life seem routine to Mer. On weekday mornings, she tries to wakes up early enough to avoid the period known around her house in northeast Kansas City as “rush hour,” when everyone is hurrying to get somewhere. Besides her parents, brother and sister, Mer shares a home with her sister’s husband and two small children — eight people in all.

Before 8 a.m., usually having skipped breakfast, Mer is at school, preparing for classes. Her coursework is heavy on math and science in preparation for what she hopes will be a nursing career. A federal Pell Grant covers her tuition and pays for most of her textbooks.

She returns home in early afternoon for what usually is her first meal of the day. Eating is cheaper at home than at school, Mer says.

Along with her classes, Mer recently started a 40-hour-a-week job as a machine operator at a plastics manufacturing plant in Riverside. And she keeps busy at her church, where she leads the youth group. She plans a monthly youth service, leads meetings and participates in Karen events around the area.

“Getting involved in the church has made me stronger,” she says. “I’m not so shy anymore.”

"The promise of America is rarely for that first generation. It’s for the younger people who go through the acculturation machinery that is the public schools.”

Photo: Singing a traditional song onstage, Paw ie Mer celebrates the Karen community's New Year celebration at the Kansas National Guard Armory in Kansas City, Kansas.

By the end of the summer, Mer, now 21, hopes to have completed the requirements to gain entry to the Health Science Institute at Penn Valley. Her plan is to become a licensed practical nurse and work at that level while continuing her studies to become a registered nurse. She wants to work in a hospital here, and dreams of returning to Myanmar or Thailand to make a small dent in the suffering she saw in the camps.

“It was easy to get sick but hard to find a place to take care of you,” she remembers.

Mer’s dreams of returning to Asia bring her family full circle: her father’s dream was to find a way to America.

“The promise of America is rarely for that first generation,” says Steve Weitkamp, director of refugee resettlement services at Jewish Vocational Services. “It’s for the younger people who go through the acculturation machinery that is the public schools.”

That has been true for Kpaw Klay and his family. With his daughter translating, he says he loves America because he can move about freely. But learning English has been a struggle for him. And a life of hard physical work has left him disabled and with a pacemaker. While his wife works as a housekeeper at a downtown hotel, Klay spends much of his time at home.

The father’s crowning achievement was getting his children to America. His daughter is carrying on from there.

‘The Kid Has Wind’

Souleymane Adam listens during a math class at community college.

A teacher at East High School made a point of getting to know Souleymane Adam even when he barely spoke a word of English. Patrick Brier teaches American government. He also coaches cross country.

Although Adam was too old to compete in high school sports, Brier invited him to practice with the team and run unofficially in meets. Adam finished first in every high school meet he entered. Following Brier’s instructions, he stepped off the course just before entering the chute at the finish line.

“The kid has just got wind. He does not get tired,” Brier says. It was his idea for Adam to try out for the team at Johnson County Community College.

The college, located in Overland Park, enrolls more than 18,000 students, many from the better-off suburban school districts in Johnson County. Adam ran two seasons of cross country and one season of track before the school, in a controversial move, canceled the programs.

By that time, though, Adam had little time for college sports. On a Saturday afternoon in November, sitting on the living room sofa that doubles as his bed in the three-bedroom house in northeast Kansas City that is home to his parents and 10 siblings, he described what at the time was a typical school day.

“Before, I couldn’t stay in school and I couldn’t work. Now I want to use every second of my life.”

“I wake up at 4 in the morning and I take a shower and pray and get ready to go,” he said. “So by 5 o’clock I’ll be driving on the highway, that way I don’t get stuck in traffic. I go to school for my first class, second class, third class. Sometimes I don’t eat breakfast because I get really busy with my unfinished assignments.”

His classes ended at 1 p.m., which gave him a small window of free time before his 3 p.m. shift at Prier Products in Grandview. A manufacturer of plumbing industry products, Prier collaborates with Jewish Vocational Services to employ refugees. Adam found out about the company when he accompanied a friend who wanted to apply for a job there.

“I enjoy working there because people are really nice and helpful to me,” he said. During breaks, coworkers helped him with school assignments.

He would leave work at 11 p.m. and drive home, where he would find most of his family sleeping. Adam would finish off the remains of the family dinner and continue with his homework.

Souleymane Adam and his younger brother Jasir Adam at their parent's northeast Kansas City home.

“Sometimes I don't sleep at all,” Adam said. “I'll be working until the next day and take a shower and continue the same routine.”

On weekends, he worked a second job as an aide to a Sudanese man who is blind and speaks no English.

He viewed his relentless schedule as making up for lost time.

“Before, in my old life, I couldn’t help that much,” Adam said. “I couldn’t stay in school and I couldn’t work. Now I want to use every second of my life.”

From Tanzania to Penn Valley

Asende Ebumbe in the home he shares with other family members in northeast Kansas City. Ebumbe was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but spent most of his life in refugee camps in Tanzania.

Asende Ebumbe is another young refugee student in a hurry. He is making his way through Penn Valley’s ESL curriculum while working a low-paying job to survive.

“Education is important in this life,” he says. “If you have education, everything’s going to be OK.”

Getting that education, though, is a struggle. During lunch one day, Ebumbe passed his hand across his forehead and asked for divine help.

“Oh God, bless me,” he said. “Bless me to learn English.”

Ebumbe sees proficiency in English as his ticket forward. For passing his classes at Penn Valley Community College. For navigating rituals like a trip to the motor vehicle office. Even for ordering a pizza and soft drink at an unfamiliar restaurant in Kansas City’s River Market.

Ebumbe, 25, was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but spent most of his life in refugee camps in Tanzania. Unrelenting conflict in his homeland, which continues to this day, forced his parents to flee with their children in the 1990s.

Ebumbe was nearly 23 when he cleared the United Nations’ years-long resettlement process. Unlike many refugees, he came to America by himself. After brief stays in North Carolina and South Dakota, he moved to Kansas City on the advice of Congolese friends he had connected with on Facebook. One of those friends told him he could go to college here.

Refugees who arrive in the U.S. in their late teens and early 20s often find themselves in a bind. They are too old to attend high school, but without a diploma they can’t get into college. Lacking English skills and career training, most find themselves in low-paying factory or cleaning jobs.

“In a sense we have a whole half-generation condemned to indentured servitude,” says Weitkamp, at Jewish Vocational Services.

Fewer than a quarter of refugee children worldwide attend school beyond primary grades, according to the United Nations. But Ebumbe had persevered long enough to earn his high school diploma. That had helped him get to America. And now it would get him into college.

“In a sense we have a whole half-generation condemned to indentured servitude.”

A Congolese friend helped him enroll at Penn Valley. They were clueless about FAFSA applications, Pell Grants, scholarships and work study programs. Being new in town, Ebumbe lacked the residency documents the college required, so he signed up for the more expensive out-of-state rates.

Once the semester started, he tanked almost immediately. Classes were bewildering. The school kept sending him emails about late payments.

“The load, financially and academically, was overwhelming for him,” says Teresa Stewart, who volunteers her time to help African refugees enroll in college and vocational programs.

From his usual place in the front row, Asende Ebumbe practices his English language skills during an ESL class at Penn Valley Community College.

Things went better the next semester. Stewart helped Ebumbe with his federal financial aid application. He was able to secure enough money through a Pell Grant to pay the back money he owed the college and sign up for new classes.

But mediocre grades in those classes, combined with his disastrous first semester, caused Ebumbe to lose his Pell Grant for failure to show adequate academic progress. So he was back to paying out of pocket.

Stewart says she pleaded with Ebumbe to hold off on classes until he got his financial and residency difficulties straightened out and became more fluent in English. While the ESL classes he is taking cost the same as associate degree courses at Penn Valley, they do not result in college credits. So Ebumbe, who struggles to afford the basics, will have spent thousands of dollars before he ever earns a credit.

But Ebumbe is tenacious. “I came to America to go to college,” he says.

“He wanted to go to college more than he wanted to eat,” Stewart says. “He chose the expenses for college over things I would have thought were more practical.”

This spring semester, Ebumbe is enrolled in two classes: ESL composition and grammar. His grades from last semester were good enough to give him hope, and he’s also less alone. One of Ebumbe’s sisters made her way to the U.S. with her husband and two children. They live with Ebumbe in a small rental home in northeast Kansas City.

“He wanted to go to college more than he wanted to eat.”

Ebumbe works 40 hours a week for $12.20 an hour at an auto finishing company. He tries to send money regularly to his parents and five siblings still in Tanzania. He isn’t able to help as much as he would like.

“In America I have so much to pay,” he says, mentioning rent, insurance, utilities and his cell phone bill, along with his tuition.

A rail-thin young man, Ebumbe spent the coldest days of the recent winter scampering about campus in a thin hoodie before someone gave him a coat. His phone is frequently shut off for non-payment. Lacking a computer, he stays after classes or visits libraries to do his homework. The one thing he has going for him is a reliable car, which he purchased from a friend in South Dakota.

Daniel Fitzgerald, associate director of the English as a Second Language program at Penn Valley, has seen many immigrant students struggle inside and outside of the classroom.

“It’s hard to be in this city and harder still when you don’t speak the language,” he says.

Ebumbe’s fellow student Nimo Kariye works with him on a group exercise during an ESL class at Penn Valley Community College.

Fitzgerald has taught English as a second language for 20 years. His students, he says, are “very generous and very motivated.” Those who make it through the ESL program outperform other Penn Valley students in associate degree classes, he says.

But not all students succeed in ESL.

“Some students just hit a wall,” Fitzgerald says. “They get to a certain point and then they level off. As hard as they work, they don’t improve.”

Teachers worldwide cope with this frustration. They even have a name for it: language fossilization. Researchers aren’t sure why it happens to some students and not others; theories include childhood trauma, lack of connection to English speakers, even childhood dehydration.

“Some students just hit a wall. They get to a certain point and then they level off. As hard as they work, they don’t improve.”

After three years in the United States, Ebumbe is working hard on his English. He sought a job where he could work alongside native English speakers rather than immigrants. In class, he stations himself in the front row and is quick to raise his hand to ask a question or answer one posed by the instructor. During breaks, he engages other students in conversation. With birthplaces in Iraq, Mexico, China, Brazil, Jordan and other places, his classmates are all seeking fluency in a new language.

“They are the hardest-working people you will ever meet,” says instructor Ashley Lynd, who teaches both of Ebumbe’s courses this semester. “They face every obstacle under the sun, but they are more positive than most Americans, including myself.”

From Johnson County to Cloud County

The landscape around Concordia, Kansas, is flat and brown and uncluttered as winter transitions into spring. A traveler passing through might describe the tableau as empty, and that is exactly the way Souleymane Adam likes it.

Adam’s life today is much different from the grueling routine he described in Kansas City in November.

After completing 16 credit hours in his fall semester at Johnson County Community College, he signed up for two online classes in the accelerated winter term.

He quickly fell behind. In January, his grades confirmed the worst. He had failed one course and received a D in the second.

Adam stepped back and looked at his life — the long hours, the lack of sleep, all the time driving between home, school and work. As the oldest son in a large family, he was spending hours every week dealing with paperwork and problems.

“Education means more to me than anything,” Adam says. But he had too many obligations getting in the way.

“They are the hardest-working people you will ever meet. They face every obstacle under the sun, but they are more positive than most Americans.”

As a refugee, Adam had been frustrated by an absence of choices and the torpor of prolonged waiting. In America, he controls his destiny. He decided to make a change, and he acted swiftly.

Through online research, he discovered Cloud County Community College, a school with just more than 800 students in Concordia, about a three-hour drive from Kansas City. It welcomes first-generation students, Adam learned. He could live on campus. Adam drove to Concordia in a snowstorm and registered for the spring semester.

Now, for the first time in his life, he has his own space, a barrack-like room across the street from the long, squat building that houses the school’s classrooms and offices. He eats meals in the dining hall and works out in the gym. School work is manageable and he has time to read books beyond those required in classes.

Over the winter, Souleymane Adam transferred to Cloud County Community College in Concordia, Kansas. It’s a much different atmosphere from Johnson County Community College.

While he used to spend almost two hours a day in his vehicle, Adam now walks everywhere. He gave his car to his 21-year-old brother, Kamal, a Penn Valley student, who agreed to take over errand and translating duties for the family in Adam’s absence. Adam carpools to and from Kansas City some weekends with a friend.

At Cloud County, he participates in a program that offers extensive academic, financial and life-skills counseling for first-generation college students. If he returns in the fall, as he plans, Adam will have the opportunity to visit four-year college campuses throughout Kansas and receive help with his applications. That help is crucial to his ambitions, which include attending a four-year college and law school after that.

Adam had searched for those kinds of supports at Johnson County but never found the right group or adviser to provide them. The school makes counselors available, but they are busy and sessions are short.

“Sometimes I would go to my counselor with all kinds of questions, but because of time, you cannot feel comfortable enough to ask all the questions that you have,” Adam says.

He always has questions. Adrian Douglas, president of Cloud County Community College, says she began hearing about Adam soon after he arrived. He attended a lecture series during Black History Month and peppered the speaker (Douglas’ husband) with questions.

Adam already has submitted a successful proposal to start a new club on campus. Almost 20 percent of the student body consists of international students, who enroll at Cloud County to compete in the school’s many sports programs. Adam proposed a group that would bring students from countries like Brazil, France, Nigeria and Sudan together to share their stories while practicing English.

“This young man is really getting around,” Douglas says. “I’m excited to see what he’s going to do.”

No Distractions Allowed

Paw ie Mer (left), her mother Marry Htoo (center) and her sister Paw Moo look through their collection of traditional Karen clothing as they prepare for a birthday party.

Through force of will, Adam found a way to separate himself from the distractions and pressures that derail the college dreams of many refugee students. And he identified the one prescription that students and educators say would help the most: more supportive services to help new Americans figure out the complex financial, academic and bureaucratic expectations of staying in school.

Paw ei Mer says she wishes Penn Valley had special counselors who understand the cultural and language barriers that trouble immigrant students. Many students she knows, Mer says, are too shy or fearful to ask enough questions.

“It’s doing your best and never letting anything distract you from what you want to achieve.”

Teresa Stewart, the volunteer who helps refugee students, has the same thought. The advisers she’s seen on campuses are kind and helpful, Stewart says, but “they talk quickly and in compound and complex sentences.” Students struggling with English, she says, “walk away with no comprehension of what just happened.”

Other measures would help, too. Daniel Fitzgerald, at Penn Valley, would like to see an easier path for ESL students into career track programs. He’s designing “bridge courses,” to help students master vocabulary they’ll need for certain academic career tracks, like medicine.

Fitzgerald also wishes ESL classes could be financed in some way other than Pell Grants.

“Financial aid puts a lot of pressure on students when so many other things get in the way,” he says. “We have students already in trouble with financial aid and they haven't even gotten to the first academic class yet.”

Despite the difficulties, though, the drive for education is strong.

Holly Milkowart, at Johnson County, says the English for Academic Purposes program has the highest retention level of any program on campus.

And refugee students who leave Penn Valley without finishing the ESL curriculum often return a year or so later, when their lives have quieted down a bit, Fitzgerald says.

“It’s doing your best and never letting anything distract you from what you want to achieve,” Adam says.

“Being a first generation college student is not easy but you have to focus on your goal. You don't want to be in the same situation as your parents, or your grandparents. You go up some hills and down some hills, but you keep moving.”

Spoken like a runner.

Now training for next year's track team at Cloud County Community College, Souleymane Adam runs on a treadmill as he chats with Kenyi Santino. Santino, also from South Sudan, was an Olympic athlete on the first South Sudan Olympic team at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

Barbara Shelly is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at bshellykc@gmail.com Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha. This story is a joint project of KCUR and the Education Writers Association.

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