Increasing Recognition and Advancing Equity for Afghan Community College Students

Palomar College
MiraCosta College
Modesto Junior College

Note: The following article is not an official statement of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. The article is intended to engender discussion and consideration by local colleges but should not be seen as the endorsement of any position or practice by the ASCCC.

Over a year has passed since the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. Since that time, millions of lives in Afghanistan and the global diaspora have been permanently altered. Those in Afghanistan struggle to survive under the hegemony of the Taliban regime, the U.S. and global sanctions, recent natural disasters, and the subsequent economic and humanitarian crises. An influx of refugees, including many unaccompanied minors and interpreters for the U.S. military, are working to rebuild their lives in the U.S. while facing innumerable challenges and uncertainties about their futures.
To understand the current conditions and needs of Afghan students, one must understand their histories and lived experiences. Afghans have experienced decades of unrest, including war and displacement fueled by centuries of colonial and imperial violence as well as global capitalism (Dossa, 2014). Due to the geopolitical history of Afghanistan, external interest lies in the country’s rare-earthing minerals, the mass production of opium, and the interests of neighboring countries. Continued violence has occurred due to political uncertainty and unsafety, resulting in untold losses to human life and an increasingly large global refugee population (Alemi & Stempel, 2018) that has once again grown because of emergency evacuations and ongoing displacement. Between 2008 and 2020, many Afghans resettled through the Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghan translators and others who helped the U.S. military (Saydee & Saydee, 2021). As a result of these varying experiences and factors leading to resettlement, the lived experiences of the Afghan community are uniquely diverse and cannot be assumed nor compared.

Afghanistan continues to rank as the most dangerous country in the world (Haltiwanger, 2019). The Taliban continue to forbid girls and women their basic human rights to work, seek education, and be legally protected (Amnesty International, 2022) and the international communities have once again abandoned the safety of Afghans. In light of these ongoing crises, community colleges should examine how they are currently serving students of Afghan descent and the ways in which they can improve to actualize their values of access and equity.

Afghan Students in Community Colleges

For decades, the Afghan diaspora has added to the diverse student body and communities served by community colleges. For recent arrivals, colleges are “educational gateways for higher education” (Phan, 2018, p. 564) and provide access to critical language and skill development, citizenship courses, and much more. Similar to other refugee populations (Mangan & Winter, 2017), Afghan students remain largely misrecognized and frequently invalidated within higher education. The community college system does not accurately track students who identify as Central Asian and Middle Eastern and instead incorrectly aggregates these two ethnic categories under the racial identity of White (Sadat, 2019). As a result, many Afghan students are not considered for scholarship opportunities in postsecondary education (Sadat, 2019). Along with this overarching invisibility and erasure, the intersectionality and social capital that Afghan students represent and contribute are missing in the narrative of diversity, equity, inclusion, and antiracism. An intersectional lens will reveal a complex fabric of identities based on gender, religion, socio-economic status, ethnicity, sexuality, military-affiliated support, migration history, current immigration status, disability, and more.   

Intersectional Barriers and Challenges

For newly arrived Afghans, the path to attending community college is not easily accessible or apparent. Furthermore, newly arrived students experience layered barriers of forcefully leaving their home country, incurring trauma, financial insecurities, religious bigotry, and racial marginality. Xenophobia, Islamophobia, and various practices of discrimination and othering impact students’ lives and further exacerbate ongoing post-resettlement stressors that impact their well-being (Alemi & Stempel, 2018; Sadat Ahadi, 2021). Basic needs, such as housing, food, and healthcare insecurity further impact the well-being and academic success of newly arrived Afghan students. Many who arrive in the U.S. are also challenged with the loss of educational, occupational, and social status due to the lack of transferability of prior credits, degrees, and work experience (Gatling, 2021; Stempel & Alemi, 2021).

Many refugee students also experience trauma due to the emotional suffering and torture they faced before reaching their post-resettlement country (Jamil et al., 2007). Students’ traumatic life experiences may include witnessing bomb explosions, death, beatings, sexual assault, and further political violence. Leaving their families behind, they are now in a new country without lucrative employment and with limited financial support (Joyce et al., 2010). Language and socio-cultural differences may present further challenges for Afghan students.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan magnified existing challenges for Afghan students in community colleges. Student testimonials include painful and systemic challenges that prevented reunification with their family members who either fled or attempted to leave Afghanistan. Other students share their experience with housing shortages in the U.S. and living in motels for months before finding a home or living with large extended families in one apartment. Stressors such as resettlement, bicultural challenges, and isolation impact their wellbeing (Khairandesh & Rowbottom, 2021). Instructors should understand the reasons that students are late, absent, unfocused, or feeling depressed and provide equitable support. Thus, Afghan students’ lived experiences should be further explored by colleges rather than applying punitive policies and practices that further marginalize them.

Fostering Community and Belonging

Students share common struggles (Bernard, 2000), so having a community is significant in Afghan students’ lives to learn about employment opportunities, navigating the educational system and healthcare system (Hey, 2022). Providing collective opportunities for Afghan students will contribute to their persistence and completion in community college. Modesto Junior College (MJC) has been successful in supporting Afghan refugee students by partnering with organizations such as World Relief and International Rescue Committee. Through the power of partnering, the English language department at MJC has created courses and workshops tailored to the needs of the refugee student population, such as literacy and citizenship classes, English for childcare, and a language course that prepares students to obtain their driver’s licenses. The English language department has also offered panel discussions and sessions on cultural sensitivity and trauma-informed teaching for faculty in supporting refugee-background students. In addition, Afghan female students have been recruited to become Hambastagizanan—meaning “women united”—student leaders to coordinate on-campus gatherings for Afghan women to support one another in navigating the college system.
By creating support for Afghan students, college campuses have an opportunity to amplify their voices and give this student population the recognition they deserve. Professional development for all community college constituents should identify barriers and support for Afghan students. Collaboratively, colleges can learn about the skills and agency Afghan students possess and the ways they can contribute to both their campus and the local community.

Recommendations for Praxis

Community colleges can further support Afghan students and by extension all refugee and immigrant students in community colleges through measures like the following:

  • Disaggregate ethnicity by ensuring ethnic identities are not incorrectly aggregated (Sadat, 2019; Sadat Ahadi, 2021; Hey, 2022).
  • Provide ongoing professional development such as culturally relevant teaching, trauma-informed teaching, and counseling, challenging implicit and explicit bias, and all matters pertaining to diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism.
  • Provide mental health services that account for the needs of refugee-background students.
  • Continue to provide and enhance culturally-responsive English language programs, services, and course offerings. Engage in culturally-responsive pedagogy and curriculum development (Ladson-Billings, 1995).
  • Create and open cultural hubs and spaces for students to congregate, dialogue, and feel a sense of belonging (Sadat, 2019; Sadat Ahadi, 2021).
  • Provide mentoring programs for new arrivals to navigate the community college system (Sadat, 2019; Sadat Ahadi, 2021).
  • Provide outreach to refugee and immigrant communities to map out the pathway to community college, along with student support resources (Sadat, 2019; Sadat Ahadi, 2021).
  • Provide basic-needs support—food, housing, transportation, childcare, and more—that is continuously responsive to students’ needs and recognizes varying help-seeking tendencies of marginalized communities.
  • For high-influx communities, translate college resources and supportive workshops into languages such as Dari/Farsi, and Pashto (Sadat, 2019; Sadat Ahadi, 2021). Hire more employees who speak these languages and identify with the community.
  • For high-influx communities, create affinity groups (Sadat Ahadi, 2021), such as Hambastagizanan at Modesto Junior College and Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim & South Asian (AMEMSA+) at MiraCosta College, where students build community and receive peer support and faculty mentorship.
  • Recognize students' prior careers and credentials by creating easier pathways for evaluation of international credits to improve the economic outcomes for Afghan and other immigrants in similar positions (Stempel & Alemi, 2021).


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