Former refugee wins international research competition


For Alfred Mupenzi, researching the lives of refugees at university is a subject close to his heart. Born and raised in refugee camps in Uganda after soldiers took his father, Alfred is a living testament to the transformative power of education. After his mother died when he was just 12, Alfred was sent to a Catholic seminary to be educated, and later completed a Bachelor of Arts/ Education at Makerere University in Uganda.

"Looking back, I was one of the lucky ones. I was extremely fortunate to receive an education during my formative years that's helped me get where I am today. Although I never did end up becoming a priest!" he says from his home in Penrith, in Sydney's western suburbs.  

After completing a Master of Arts in Public Administration and Management (MAPAM) of Makerere University Uganda, Alfred applied to undertake a PhD at Western Sydney University in 2013, focusing on the experiences of other refugee background students studying at university and TAFE, and what can be done to assist them in their journeys. Although his thesis is not quite finished, Alfred's work was recently chosen recognized over hundreds of his peers at the Australian Association for Research in Education Conference, with his paper 'Refugee background students in tertiary education: An Insider's View' winning the Postgraduate Student Researcher Award.

"It was a great honour to win the award, as not only was it a very competitive field, it's a topic that's close to my heart. Generally speaking, refugees are extremely grateful for the chance to receive an education, and it's crucial we learn more about their struggles and successes as they adapt to life in their new countries."

In Australia, Alfred says refugees face a range of problems as they settle into their new lives.

"My research has found many of the problems facing students with a refugee background are the same as other migrants acclimatising to life in Australia. Many are still perfecting their English, and simply don't know about the range of services that can provide them assistance. So they simply aren't aware of refugee support networks, Centrelink assistance, and other basic government services that aren't available in their own countries."


When leaving high school and considering tertiary education, Alfred says many refugees often simply choose a TAFE degree or University course they believe will get them a good job, but find it challenging once they graduate.

"Many of these refugees have low confidence, and once they receive their graduating certificates or degrees they find it really tough to get past the interview stage and secure a job. They have the skills and the drive, but they really need mentors and life coaches to help give them the confidence they need to take that final step."

In particular, Alfred is looking at how the varying life experiences of refugees shapes their education in Australia. He says many who arrive here have, like him, spent years in refugee camps, and their education has been interrupted.

"Many have spent years living rough, and when they arrive here they're overwhelmed by small facts, like the lack of gunfire, and the fact that education is free and the government here helps provide financial support," says Alfred.

"It's these details in their lives that are helping inform my research, to look at the entire background of refugees and see how their life stories determine success or failure at higher education. By studying the ways these refugees have developed resilience in their lives, we can aim to harness these strengths and give them the tools to help themselves."


16 December 2016

Mark Smith - Senior Media Officer