Selection process for Syrian Refugee Scholarship proves an eye-opening experience for Renison instructors

Monday, August 8, 2016

Selection committee reshifts focus after hearing the stories of applicants

child puts hands on top of chain link fence with refugee camp in the backgroundby AJ Dixon, Student Services Coordinator & Recruitment Assistant 

Renison University College, through a generous donation recently established a Syrian Refugee Scholarship to provide funding to a select number of refugees living in Waterloo Region for English language courses at Renison’s English Language Institute. A selection committee consisting of three Renison instructors - Stephen Hill, Short-term Program Coordinator for the English Language Institute; Edwin Ng, Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work; and Elizabeth Matthews, Assistant Director of the English Language Institute's EFAS and GEAR programs - was struck to interview twelve potential scholarship candidates.

In staffing the selection committee, Hill, Ng, and Matthews were given the mandate to "do the most good" with the scholarship funds available in helping local refugees upgrade their English language skills. As you could imagine, this proved to be no easy task given the great need present within the community of refugees living in Waterloo Region. Of the many who applied, 12 candidates were short-listed and invited to attend an interview with the selection committee. These interviews were held over the course of a few weeks in late May and early June 2016.

The interviews were initially structured like those for other post-secondary scholarships, with candidates being vetted through a formal question and answer session. However, it became clear just a few minutes into the first interview that this process needed some adjustment. Stephen Hill noted “Those of us on the selection committee had all done these Q&A-type interviews, but we soon realized this was not an appropriate format.” Elizabeth Matthews added “The candidates were nervous for the interviews already, and the committee agreed that we needed to make these interviews a little less structured - so they were more of a conversation - to help make the candidates feel comfortable.”

In inviting the candidates to share their stories, the committee members soon realized that selecting recipients for the scholarship was going to be even more difficult than they had anticipated. Elizabeth Matthews remarked “Their memories of what happened in Syria are still very fresh in the minds of the candidates; even thinking back now, it still surprises me how intensely emotional it all was”. Edwin Ng added, “As we listened to their stories, we realized we needed to stop asking 'Who deserves this the most?', as all of the candidates were in need of help given what they had experienced back home. Instead, we agreed that these conversations we had with the candidates were a chance for us to determine the needs of each individual; and given that information, we would work to match candidates whose needs align well with the services Renison is able to provide; so they could have that second chance.”

In speaking with the twelve candidates, the committee members began to better understand what being given a second chance truly meant to someone fleeing their homeland. “The candidates often talked about ‘time lost’,” said Hill. “These individuals we interviewed had lost everything, truly everything, and they spoke of how devastating that all was.”  Matthews agreed, adding that “Yet despite all they’ve gone through, the candidates wanted to move-on now; they’re ready to get back on their feet.” “Some of these candidates went to major, respected universities,” said Edwin Ng, “but they lost all their documentation; transcripts, diplomas, everything. I kept saying to myself "Surely it can’t be totally gone, it must be in the cloud or something, but no, it’s truly all gone, and all we have to use is what they tell us.” Despite the gravity of the challenge faced, the committee found the candidates to be full of hope and optimism. As Matthews observed, “All of the candidates want to contribute to society, in spite of everything they’ve been through themselves.”

It was clear in speaking to the committee members that the experience left them deeply moved, with a new appreciation for the bravery these refugees had shown in the face of adversity. As Elizabeth Matthews put it, “…it was an honour and a privilege to be able to help contribute, in our small way, to the journey of these scholarship recipients.”

Although the experience affected each committee member in a different way, they each agreed on one area in particular: the need to do more.  As Stephen Hill remarked, “the most difficult part (of the selection process) for me was, unfortunately, not being able to give everyone assistance through the scholarship fund. Despite the fact we could only help a select few, it was clear from talking to all the candidates that they are going to be successful in all that they do. So we need to be knocking on more doors, asking others to help these refugees get that second chance that they deserve.” Matthews agreed, adding “It’s our obligation, as human beings, to help if we can at a time of crisis or need.” “The whole process, for me, really countered the narrative that refugees are a drain on the system,” said Ng. “The individuals we spoke with wanted to contribute; to improve Canadian society, and its folks like us, at educational institutions, that need to advocate for them; to help create these opportunities.” 

Renison University College would like to offer its continued gratitude to the donors for their generous support of the Syrian Refugee Scholarship fund, and thank the selection committee members for their hard work.  Renison would also like to wish all of the candidates and the scholarship recipients the very best in all their future endeavours.

Individuals or organizations interested in supporting the Syrian Refugee Language Fund are asked to contact Caroline Tanswell at or 519-884-4404 ext. 28605