Felix Madji escaped armed captors as a 13-year-old in the Central African Republic – a harrowing experience that would set the now-second-year college student apart from classmates on most campuses. But in Houghton College’s Buffalo program, Madji, now 21, knows he’s in familiar company.
Inside a retrofitted church hall on the West Side where classes meet daily, Madji and other refugees are getting a shot at a college degree at a very affordable cost.
“Some students have stories maybe worse than mine, but all of us have similar stories,” Madji said.
Most of the 55 students in this novel program share a common bond: They are refugees and immigrants from nations thousands of miles away who have resettled in Buffalo. To get here, many survived war, left their families and homelands, and lived in stifling refugee camps – only to be greeted by the harsh reality of being outsiders, economically and culturally, in their adopted city.
“I tend to think we’re in the process of giving them back their future,” said Cameron Airhart, a longtime Houghton history professor and dean of the Buffalo program. “They’re bundles of human potential.”
As the cost of college continues to skyrocket, refugees who come to the United States with little or nothing are among the least able to afford it. Many young refugees also arrive with limited English skills, making the transition to college-level work especially challenging.
Houghton College, a Christian school located in rural Allegany County, has tight connections with Jericho Road Community Health Center. The health center provides an array of health and other services to mostly immigrant families in Buffalo. College officials learned a few years ago that a growing number of young refugees in the city had few real options for education beyond high school. Community college, the most obvious starting point for high school graduates with limited resources, isn’t able to provide the small class settings and intensive English tutoring that many refugees need.
“These are people who wouldn’t succeed there,” Airhart said. “And do we care about them? We decided we’re going to care about them.”
Like many small liberal arts colleges, Houghton has struggled to balance affordability with its own rising costs, so the college was in no position to start a program that would drain resources from the main campus. At the same time, to make a program for refugees work, college officials knew they would have to make it virtually free, while providing a level of remedial instruction that can be costly.
“It forced us to ask a lot of hard questions about, in the first two years of college, what do students need and what do they not need?” Airhart said. “We viewed ourselves very much as a startup.”
Airhart drew inspiration from the grassroots advocates who got the ball rolling on developing Buffalo’s waterfront, with the credo that small, incremental improvements to Canalside would help attract people to the area better than costly, magic-bullet projects.
“I knew about lighter, cheaper, quicker,” Airhart said.
The college, with roots in the Wesleyan Church, rented out two floors of the First Presbyterian Church’s old hall. Donations paid for the costs of renovating the space to fit the needs of the program. There are no sports teams, dining halls, dorms, libraries or laboratories. An administrative staff of three, including Airhart, runs the program, which relies mostly on adjunct faculty and a handful of Houghton professors to teach courses in writing, communications, history, political science, music, art, math, science, anthropology, literature and philosophy. The program also employs part-time tutors who help students master the finer points of English.
The college pays for a bus pass for each student, buys all of the required textbooks and has a deal with Bak USA that provides each student with his or her own laptop computer. The tuition bill is roughly $11,000 per year, about a third of what Houghton charges at its main campus. With federal Pell grants and state TAP awards, students end up paying nothing out of pocket, and they don’t take on any loans.
“We’re committed to a no-debt model,” Airhart said.
The program places an emphasis on liberal arts education and is not vocational training, although Airhart said it does prepare students for entry-level jobs.
“One of the things we’re committed to here is our students have the right to think about their place in the world, just as wealthier students do,” he said. “I don’t think we should be telling our students your goal is to find employment so maybe your grandkids can have a better life.”
The program started with 16 students in 2014. All but three of them earned an associate degree within two years. Some have gone on to pursue a bachelor’s degree at other colleges, including SUNY Buffalo State and the main Houghton campus.
David Htoo lives in a typical college dorm room of cinder-block walls and disheveled bedding, although his path to higher education has been anything but typical. He spent the first 20 years of his life in a refugee camp in Thailand. Resettled in Buffalo in 2010, he earned poverty wages as a dishwasher and factory worker. Htoo knew he needed a college education to get ahead, but he wasn’t sure how to get one. His English language skills weren’t polished and he couldn’t afford to pay for college.
“I realized in this country, if you don’t have a college degree or any education background, you’re not going to get a good job,” Htoo said. “I knew that working as a dishwasher is never going to change my life. I was only making $8 an hour. You work every day, eight hours a day and nothing changes.”
His efforts to apply to community college never panned out, he figures because he didn’t have an American high school diploma. The Houghton program started just in time for him. Htoo, 26, earned an associate degree in May and enrolled full time in August at the main Houghton campus, where he is studying political science. Without tutors, the academics have become more difficult. Htoo, who became a U.S. citizen earlier this year, said he now relies on friends to check over his grammar and organization before submitting papers. And he shares the same worries as other students about life after college, including the student loans he’ll have to pay off.
Other students who earned associate degrees in May from Houghton joined the workforce. The program in August also added its own bachelor’s degree in psychology – a major that Joanna Lay, 21, now pursues. The native of Thailand spent five years in a refugee camp with her family before moving to the United States a decade ago. She graduated from Leonardo DaVinci High School in 2014 and earned an associate degree this past May.
“The school is so small, you can talk to your teacher,” said Lay. “You’ve got a small class, a small group of people. They treat you like family. It helps you to learn better.”
Lay said she needed all the help she could get, especially with her English. She grew up speaking Karen, a language used by people indigenous to the Thailand-Burma border region. She struggled sometimes with using the right verbs to express in English when something happened.
“Our language we don’t really use past tense and future tense – just straightforward,” she said. “I used to learn English in Thailand, but when I moved to Burma, I lost it, because I had to learn another language.”
Lay’s English now is strong. In addition to college, she works 15 to 20 hours per week in the accounting office at Wegmans. Ultimately, she hopes to work someday in international relations, traveling the globe. But immediately after finishing her degree she plans to find a job locally and help her family. Lay said her father was a doctor in Thailand, but needs to earn a certificate in this country to be able to practice medicine here, so she wants to help support her family while he works on getting a medical license. She also plans to help other immigrants who come to Buffalo and “feel left out.”
“I want to help people that think they don’t want to try, they want to give up right away,” she said. “’I want to share my story with them, so they understand, ‘OK, I’m not the only one suffering with this situation.”
Experiment for future
Felix Madji wears Yankees cap and a striped sweater sitting at a table explaining how he arrived in Buffalo in 2012 from nearly 7,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. Madji grew up in Cameroon, in Central Africa, and went to visit his grandmother in his parent’s native Central African Republic, a country with a history of war and ethnic strife. Shortly into the visit, Madji said a group of men carrying guns and wearing shrouds on their faces broke down the door to his grandmother’s home and forced him to line up with other young men and teenagers from the area who had been similarly roused from their homes.
When the captors were distracted in conversation with each other, Madji saw an opportunity, running as fast as he could into the bush.
“I remember seeing a couple people fall behind me, but I just kept running,” he said. “I never turned back again.”
He spent several weeks on the run, aided by an older friend who also had fled, until eventually earning enough money doing odd jobs to bribe his way to safety back in Cameroon. Madji left his parents and siblings behind at age 17 to resettle in Buffalo, where he lives with a cousin on the West Side and works part time making tacos at a Hertel Avenue restaurant. At Lafayette High School, he played drums and soccer, and after earning his associate degree, he plans to enroll at SUNY Buffalo State to study music.
“I want to be a performer, and if I have a chance, I also want to teach music,” he said.
Airhart likes to describe the Houghton Buffalo program as experimental. So far, the experiment seems to be working. Houghton recently extended its lease with First Presbyterian Church for three more years. Next fall, the college will launch a similar program in Utica, home to a large population of immigrant refugees.
“The 21st century is asking us to explore different models for higher education,” Airhart said. “In many ways, I think we’re doing experiments here about what could be done that could be passed on to other people.”