Stopped Listening

Experiences of Higher Education Refugee-Background Learners


  • Peggy Lynn MacIsaac Athabasca University
  • Staci B. Martin Portland State University
  • Wilson Kubwayo Portland Community College
  • Chablue Wah Portland State University
  • Salome Nanyenga Portland State University



refugee-background learners, academic agency, deficit thinking, higher education, first-person narratives


This paper discusses the academic agency of refugee-background individuals who have resettled to the United States of America and the responsibility of higher education to value refugee-background learners as knowledge creators. Contrary to deficit thinking that views learners as unable to succeed due to their refugee background, this study explores how their experiences demonstrate their multiple capacities to succeed in higher education. The essence of these experiences is presented using self-reflexive collaborative speaking and writing inquiry. Three main themes drawn from the results were the capacities of refugee-background learners to adapt cultures, maintain multiple social connections, and exercise agency.


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Author Biographies

Peggy Lynn MacIsaac, Athabasca University

Peggy Lynn MacIsaac( a candidate in the Doctor of Education in Distance Education degree program at Athabasca University, Canada’s open university, and is researching the access to higher education of persons of concern, such as refugees, internally displaced persons, asylum seekers, stateless people, and returnees. She was the recipient of the 2015 Queen Elizabeth II Scholarship. Distance education and social justice inform Peggy Lynn’s professional and research practices. Her dissemination work has been both individual and team based producing 19 conference presentations and 2 peer-reviewed articles on various topics in higher education and a by-lined newspaper column series on contemporary refugee issues.

Staci B. Martin, Portland State University

Staci B. Martin is part of the faculty in the School of Social Work at Portland State University. Her research focuses on critical hope and despair, refugee higher education, participants as co-researchers, and community-based action projects. Staci has lived and worked alongside vulnerable communities in over 20 countries. Her experiences include designing, implementing, and evaluating sustainable psychosocial peace-building educational programs in four countries: Dieplsoot Informal Settlement, South Africa; Vishwa Shanti Vihara Vishwa Monastery, Nepal; Jamaica; and Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. She has presented at over 20 conferences and authored seven papers. She received her Ed.D. in the Educational Leadership Doctoral Program: Curriculum and Instruction from Portland State University in 2018. She is the recipient of the 2018 Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED) Dissertation in Practice of the Year Award and also the Louise M. Berman Fellows Award.

Wilson Kubwayo, Portland Community College

Wilson Kubwayo is an adjunct instructor at Portland Community College. Originally from Burundi, Wilson grew up in Tanzania and was raised in a refugee camp for over ten years. When he was 13 years old, Wilson and his family were granted the opportunity to migrate to the United States as refugees. From academic struggles and failing as a teenager, Wilson used his life experience growing up in extreme poverty and disempowerment as the main reason for his failure at life. Although Wilson grew up with harsh realities that no one wants to face, he later came to realize that he no longer wanted to play a victim role with the opportunity he now had living in the USA. Wilson earned his Master of Business Administration (MBA), with a concentration in business innovation and marketing, from the University of Sioux Falls. Wilson runs his consulting firm Wilson Inspiration, LLC and is the founder of a youth-focused organization called Our Growth Project.

Chablue Wah, Portland State University

Chablue Wah is a student at Portland State University majoring in Political Science. She was born in Myanmar but due to civil war fled to Thailand with her family.  They lived in a Thai refugee camp for seven years until they had an opportunity to live in the United States nine years ago. Because of circumstances of the civil war neither of her parents were able to attend school, and she sees her own academic pursuit as a fulfilment of their dreams. Starting at the age of sixteen Chablue has balanced schoolwork with paid work to help with her family’ finances. In high school, she did this while maintaining a 4.0 GPA and earning some college credits. On the negative side, she felt that she missed becoming a teen, and just having fun or hanging out like regular teenagers because her schedule was always tight. She maintains that tight schedule during her university studies working as a shift lead at Panda Express and a legal department intern at The Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.

Salome Nanyenga, Portland State University

Salome Nanyenga has been working at The Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) over a decade. She started as a case manager for housing and stability for low-income families and now an Interim Operations Manager for IRCO/ Africa House. Salome, with her family, sought refuge in Zambia for seven years after fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo. After moving to the United States, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work degree from Portland State University. Her personal academic persistence informs her work and activism for the educational rights of refugees. That activism led to her receiving the New Portlander Leadership awards in 2011 and 2013 for participatory democracy. Salome was one of the advocates who successfully stood to fight for the passing of the Oregon State Bill HB2508:Relating to refugees in Oregon; and declaring an emergency.




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2020-12-08 — Updated on 2021-02-24


How to Cite

MacIsaac, P. L., Martin, S. B., Kubwayo, W., Wah, C., & Nanyenga, S. (2021). Stopped Listening: Experiences of Higher Education Refugee-Background Learners. Journal of Comparative & International Higher Education, 12(Winter), 154–180. (Original work published December 8, 2020)



Winter 2020 Special Edition: Thriving in the Face of Adversity (Refugees)