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Houghton offers its college program for West Side immigrant & refugee students

Immigrant and refugee students on Buffalo's West Side have a chance to work on a two-year college degree.   WBFO's senior reporter Eileen Buckley visited Houghton College's Associate of Arts program inside the First Presbyterian Church on Symphony Circle. 

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Immigrant & refugee students attending Houghton College Buffalo.

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Zarifa Jandel is a Muslim refugee from Russia.

“My dream was to make people happy. To see smile on people’s faces, especially my mom. She was always hard working for me,” said Zarifa Jandel. She is Muslim, but grew up in Russia.

Jandel and her mother fled to Buffalo five years ago to escape Communism.

“It was harsh to live with like very Communistic country and we didn’t have that much freedom,” explained Jandel.

Jandel told us that while she was still living in Russia she hid that she was Muslim because she would be bullied. Janel's father stayed behind in Russia. He never wanted her to go to school.    

"It was harsh to live with like very Communistic country and we didn't have that much freedom," explained Zarifa Jandel, Muslim refugee from Russia.

“I couldn’t go to school because my father was strict and he wouldn’t let me go to school with boys, and so he would say ‘oh you’re a girl, you've got to be inside the house’, because my parents are from Afghanistan,” Jandel described.

In Buffalo, Jandel attended Lafayette High School. Now she is among 55-students enrolled in Houghton's satellite location in Buffalo. She's proud to be seated in a college classroom, wearing a traditional Muslim headscarf, no longer worried about displaying her ethnic heritage and religion.

“Had to put myself and the person that they wanted to see like that, so I couldn’t do the things I do here,” Jandel remarked.  

Jeff Carter is an adjunct instructor teaching Math 100.  

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Jeff Carter is an adjunct instructor teaching Math 100.

“Their biggest struggle is that unfortunately they missed a lot of the basics, so they work hard to catch up,” Carter said.

The students represent 15 countries including Afghanistan, Congo, Iraq and Burma.

“Not only do they struggle with the language, they really have to translate these very abstract concepts as well as the language, but they do well at it, they work hard,” noted Carter. 

“English unites them in some ways and their struggles with English unite them,” said Cameron Airhart, Dean at Houghton College’s Buffalo location. 

Airhart points out these students all graduated from high school.  The program uses Pell and TAP grants to pay for the tuition. It’s a two-year program that would cost about $11,000 a year. But Airhart calls it the ‘no-debt model’.

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Students gather for class inside the Houghton Buffalo site.

"Word simply spreads, so our first year we had 16 students and now we have 55 in our third year and probably grow a bit. We don’t know how large, but we don’t want to be large – we’ll lose something if we get too big and we also only want to grow as large as the community needs us to be and we don’t know what that is yet,” described Airhart.

Students also receive a free bus pass, textbooks and even a laptop. Airhart noted teaching these underserved international students really meets the college's original mission. Houghton is a Christian, Liberal Arts College located in rural Allegany County.

“Houghton College was founded for the poor boys and girls of Allegany County in 1883 – well – that’s an interesting mission. The College is reaffirming that mission, but now in urban Buffalo with people who are clearly poor,” Airhart said.   

The school doesn't offer what you would find at a typical college. There's no dorm rooms, large dinning spaces or sports teams. But there are adjunct professors and a curriculum includes English, music, art and math, science communications writing and history all in a small classroom setting.

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Houghton shares common space with First Presbyterian Church inside the building.

“I like the small class sizes. I thought the sense of community was definitely something that reduced the anxious factor and fears you have as a college freshman,” remarked Lisandra Sanchez, freshman.

Sanchez is originally from Puerto Rico. She attended both elementary and high school at Buffalo Public Schools, but has now been able to improve her math skills.

“I’ve definitely improved a lot. I have trouble with a lot of equations and transferring of decimals into fractions, so I’m defiantly learning a lot,” Sanchez said.

The Houghton Buffalo campus is now partnering with SUNY Buffalo State to make sure students who want to transfer for a bachelor degree have a seamless transition. Next September it will open up a similar college program in Utica.

Airhart could not provide details, but he promises Houghton's footprint will grow even larger in the city of Buffalo to reach more disadvantaged students.