From refugee to PhD: the power of resilience and an unwavering smile

The first thing you notice when you meet Dr Alfred Mupenzi is his smile. Oozing with wisdom and quiet confidence, it is a smile that reflects one of his life mottos – one that’s guided him through his incredible journey from refugee to PhD recipient, and mentor of refugee and asylum seeker students: “no matter what, don’t let anyone steal your smile.”

Born and raised in refugee camps in Uganda after losing both of his parents by the age of 12, and then facing social and financial challenges upon arriving in Australia in 2013 – Dr Mupenzi has many reasons not to smile. But he does, because these challenging life experiences haven’t broken him, but imbued him with valuable qualities such as resilience and adaptability. And Dr Mupenzi believes – as attested to in his PhD thesis on the resilience of African refugee students in higher education – that these students can do the same.

“Students with a refugee background are strong, are dynamic to situations and circumstance, have a high capacity of adaptability and cannot be reduced to their past. The starting point of my research wasn’t on the traumatic histories of these students, but on finding out what strengths these students had, areas that needed to be improved, and the nature of support they needed in terms of funding and other resources,” says Dr Mupenzi, from the School of Education and Office of Widening Participation at Western Sydney University.

Image credit: Sally Tsoutas

Conferred last month, Dr Mupenzi’s PhD thesis, Narratives of Displacement, resilience and education: Experiences of African students in Australian tertiary education, focuses on conceptualising the experiences of African higher education students with a refugee background – not only to understand why some students have ‘educational resilience’ and succeed and some don’t, but also to help foster this success.

“African students with a refugee background have endured many difficulties. They have experienced forced displacement and trauma, the loss of their home and the loss of their identity. Sometimes the trauma is so intense that they will never be the same person again, and have to work very hard at dealing with that. Upon arrival in Australia, despite being overwhelmingly grateful, they are then faced with further challenges in relation to language, literacy and cultural barriers.

“While acknowledging these challenge, my research suggests the benefits of not focusing on these constraints, but on reimagining these students in the context of the strength and resilience they bring to the country, their studies and their lives. I hope that my research will be used to inform stakeholders on the best way to inspire success and educational resilience among these students,” says Dr Mupenzi.

Dr Mupenzi’s thesis took four years to complete, all of it completed while Dr Mupenzi held a full-time job and some of it done while working the night shift at a local nursing home.

“It wasn’t uncommon for my supervisors to get an email from me at three or four in the morning! But I had to support my family, and knew my dream of furthering my education to the highest level would inspire people to understand that, no matter what your background, education can improve your life,” says Dr Mupenzi.

An early iteration of his thesis won the Postgraduate Student Researcher Award at the 2016 Australian Association for Research in Education Conference.

Image credit: Sally Tsoutas 

Dr Mupenzi with his family at graduation. From left: Priscilla Semuhungu Aae, Akimana Alice M. Rose, Blessing Mupenzi,  Trust Mupenzi, Alfred Mupenzi, Promise Mupenzi, Rev. Bishop Arlene Tatum and Favour Mupenzi.

Despite such an intense schedule of full-time work and study, Dr Mupenzi also found time to ‘live’ his research, by supporting refugee and asylum seeker students at Western Sydney University. Earlier this year, he helped secure Student Social Service Amenities Funds (SSAF) for the United Voices student club – the first refugee student club giving students from refugee backgrounds the opportunity to come together to talk about their experiences and connect to the University’s support services. He says the program helps, “build confidence and self-esteem for students.”

“The club is a great way for students of all backgrounds to come together and support each other, as well as celebrate being refugee and asylum seeker students. Already I have seen students in the group blossom; taking up media opportunities, sharing knowledge and starting to understand that being a student with a refugee background actually means they have a lot to share with the community and a lot of skills to draw on for their own success,” says Dr Mupenzi.

During his PhD journey Dr Mupenzi was also a research assistant for the Navigating Resettlement project which looked at ways to connect young refugees and migrants to their educational and employment aspirations. The year-long project – commissioned by SydWest Multicultural Services in collaboration with the Centre for Educational Research (CER) at Western Sydney University – worked with 119 adolescent refugees and migrants in the Blacktown area.

“This project was a great way to connect to young people with a refugee background who didn’t have any connection to higher education. Many young people we worked with didn’t know anyone that had gone to University – and never imagined they would get such an opportunity. This project allowed me to talk to young people about their dreams and aspirations and introduce the idea of higher education into their lives,” says Dr Mupenzi.

Image credit: Sally Tsoutas

Despite achieving his lifelong goal of receiving a PhD, and already contributing so much to the refugee and asylum seeker communities of western Sydney, Mr Mupenzi says his work is far from over.

“I will continue to support refugee and asylum seeker students for as long as they need my support – not only so they get the best out of themselves, but also so that their communities are able to benefit from their incredible skills and amazing qualities.

“And of course, I plan on doing it all with a smile!” says Dr Mupenzi.


23 October 2018

Emma Sandham, Senior Media Office