Highlighting refugees’ resilience can boost their confidence and engagement at university

By Emma Young

Refugees face all kinds of obstacles to settling well into a new country. One is the “stigmatised identity” of refugees as being weak, unskilled victims, write Christina Bauer at the Free University of Berlin and colleagues in a new paper in Psychological Science. So the team designed a simple intervention to reframe that identity as one characterised instead by perseverance and the ability to cope with adversity. When they tested it with refugees who were studying online, they found that it increased their engagement with their course — which in theory could make for greater future university and career success.

In an initial study, the team recruited 93 participants who had come as refugees an average of four years earlier to European countries from mostly the Middle East. All could speak at least basic English. They were asked to imagine that they would soon be studying at a German university that offered free degrees to refugees. A “reframing” group then read passages purported to have been written by previous refugee students about how being a refugee had improved their resilience — how it had helped them to be independent, for example, and not to give up. This group also wrote down things that they themselves had learned as a refugee that might help them to succeed at the university (these were framed as tips that would be shared with future students). A control group was given an intervention that focused on study strategies rather than refugee identity.

All the participants then chose the difficulty level of a logical-thinking exercise that they were told was used at the university. The team found that the reframing group chose more difficult exercises than those in the study skills group. Independent raters who had scored all the written responses also rated this group’s comments as being more motivated, more agentic (more in control) and more empowering.

Given the artificial nature of the task, these are suggestive rather than compelling findings. But then the team turned to 533 actual refugee students (mostly men, mostly quite young, mostly Middle Eastern), who were enrolling at a genuine German university.

Each student received either the 10-minute-long identity-reframing or study-skill intervention at the beginning of their online study at the university. And the team found immediate but also long-term impacts. One year on, the reframing group had engaged 23% more with the learning platform than the other group; at the 7-month mark, they had also completed more courses. This latter difference between the two groups was only marginally significant. But, the team concluded, “there was some evidence that the intervention increased refugees’ long-term academic achievement as well as their engagement.”

The researchers didn’t ask the participants about their initial feelings about refugee identity. Perhaps some already saw themselves as being strong and resourceful, and the intervention only affirmed these feelings. But whether it was a “reframing” or an affirmation, the intervention did seem to make a difference, and it’s certainly simple to run.  “The one-time identity-reframing intervention can be delivered briefly online, can reach additional students at negligible cost, and is highly scalable,” the team comments.

A version aimed at changing tutors’ and fellow students’ perceptions of refugee identity might make a difference, too, of course. Indeed, the authors of a recent major study that found essentially no evidence that any culture-related strategy adopted by an immigrant helps their wellbeing argue that the focus should shift to looking at how the receiving societies behave.     

Resourceful Actors, Not Weak Victims: Reframing Refugees’ Stigmatized Identity Enhances Long-Term Academic Engagement

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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