This cross-team collaboration within Student Services is focused on making SFU's admissions process more equitable. From left to right: Lyndsay Sprado, Wafaa Zaqout, Kelly Dohei, Ken Wong.

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How Student Services staff are making admission to SFU more accessible for refugee students

March 12, 2021
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By Natalie Lim

During January, staff working in SFU’s admissions department are typically busy processing an influx of applications for the fall semester. This year, however, was extra busy—and rewarding—for several staff in Student Services who are working to make SFU’s admissions process more equitable. 

“SFU has a competitive admissions system that favours academic achievement,” says Wafaa Zaqout, a coordinator for the Refugee and Newcomers program in SFU’s International Services for Students.

“However, studies show that a student’s ability to achieve academically is impacted by factors outside their control, like learning environment and socioeconomic status. We want to make admission to SFU more accessible for people from equity-deserving groups, such as refugees.”

Zaqout has a long history of working with refugee communities in B.C., both during and outside of work hours. She explains that students from refugee backgrounds are often driven and passionate, but need to focus their energy in places outside of school. For example, along with the stress that comes with moving to a new country, some students work multiple jobs to support their families and some are caretakers of young children. 

To address this, Zaqout began searching for a way to look at admissions more holistically. Through conversations with staff in SFU’s student recruitment and admissions department, she learned about SFU’s Diverse Qualifications program. Students who meet SFU’s minimum admission requirements and demonstrate excellence in endeavors outside academia, or have succeeded in their studies despite difficult circumstances, are considered for admission through the program, one of the few of its kind in Canada.

In January, Zaqout began working with Kelly Dohei, student recruitment coordinator, and Ken Wong, manager, admissions evaluations, to introduce SFU’s admissions policies—including Diverse Qualifications—to principals, settlement workers and counsellors who work with refugee students on a regular basis. 

However, making post-secondary education more accessible for students from equity-deserving groups is about much more than promoting admission to SFU. It also means taking the time to build relationships and showing prospective students that they can find community here.

“Because of the way our admissions process works, there’s this perception among newcomers to Canada that they might not qualify to study at SFU,” says Lyndsay Sprado, associate director of student recruitment.

“Many students don’t apply because they just don’t see themselves here. And that’s why relationship building within these communities—getting to know people and supporting them through the application process—is so important.”

Moving forward, Zaqout will continue her community work and relationship-building efforts, while Dohei and Wong will work directly with applicants who are navigating the admissions process. With Sprado’s guidance and support, they hope to discover additional ways of making post-secondary education more accessible for students from refugee backgrounds. 

Says Zaqout, “I’ve spoken with wonderful students who see SFU as a school out of their reach. We need more equitable processes to change that perception.

“These students bring so much to the university. They’re full of resilience and power; they demonstrate new perspectives and ways of thinking. Making SFU inclusive means looking beyond academics, breaking down barriers and showing them that they belong here. Because they do.”