Constructing Understandings of yourself in Education as a Refugee Learner in Malaysia – Insights from a Pilot Study

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Introduction

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 It was estimated that at the end of 2016 two thirds of the world’s refugees lived in protracted refugee situations (PRS) (UNHCR, 2017), defined as a situation in which a person remains displaced for ‘five or more years after initial displacement, without immediate prospects for implementation of durable solutions[1]’ (UNHCR, 2009, preamble). This includes refugee camps as well as urban areas in which those with refugee status are not formally recognised by the host nation. Lack of formal recognition presents a barrier to accessing education at all levels with access falling at higher years of schooling. In 2016, 36% of the world’s youth were enrolled in higher education institutions, however only about 1% of the youth in refugee populations is accounted for in this number (UNHCR, 2017). The increased involuntary flow of people in recent years is straining education systems around the world (McBrien, 2016) and more recent crises mark a shift in demand towards the tertiary sector. For example, of the half a million university-aged Syrians who have claimed asylum abroad, the Institute of International Education estimates 150,000 are qualified for university admission (Kiwan, 2017). Individuals like these Syrian youth have high aspirations and see educational opportunities as an important means for restoring dignity, security and hope (Lenette, 2016). The striking disparity in post-secondary access highlights a need to understand the barriers to enrolment in higher education and explore ways to overcome these barriers so that individuals in PRS can participate equally in post-secondary educational opportunities.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The aim of this paper is to present some of the emerging themes from a PhD pilot project that seeks to understand perspectives about barriers to higher education from PRS students using the concept of learner identity. The project was borne out of my experience teaching in a refugee learning centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; a diverse PRS hosting predominantly stateless people (e.g. Rohingya) as well as those from Myanmar (Burma), Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka and others. Many of these students aspired to attend university, consistent with Crea’s assertion that ‘those at the margins are hungry for higher education’ (2016, p. 21), although very few achieve this goal. Firstly, a brief overview of theoretical and methodological considerations will be presented followed by a background to the pilot study and participants. Following this, selected results from the pilot interviews will be presented alongside a discussion of the emerging themes to demonstrate how the theory and methods are intended to be used to extract deeper understanding of the student’s experiences. Feedback is welcomed on any aspect of the project presented here.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Theoretical Considerations

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Hoffman boldly states ‘identity has become the bread and butter of our educational diet’ (quoted in Sfard & Prusak, 2005, p. 14). Wenger (1998) describes learning as an act of experiencing identity in various formal and informal settings, while Coll and Falsafi claim that ‘the institutions of formal education are fundamental arenas for, not only construction of knowledge, but also the construction of a sense of self’ (2010, p. 213). Each of these claims has important ramifications for the way we understand education, which in turn has consequences for the kinds of educational environments and policies education systems seek to achieve. Learner identity has been used to understand education from individual learner experiences within sociocultural organisation of schools (Hatt, 2012). It has also been used as a means of exploring how and why students progress along different learning trajectories and why certain groups of students tend to follow similar trajectories based on other identities, such as race, gender and class (ibid.). These perspectives on learner identity have special semblance for students with refugee backgrounds because schools are often one of the first formal institutions where they have prolonged participation. The social and institutional discourses experienced there can be key to the development of their identities (Bal, 2014) and so a theory of learner identity and its interaction with other sources of identity construction could give valuable insight to how PRS students understand the process of education. For example, research amongst people seeking refuge from Asian countries in the US found that preconceptions about Cambodians created the assumption that they were needier, so these students become more reliant on US aid than other groups, distinctively shaping their lack of success at higher education (Sam & Finley, 2015).

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This research adopts a socio-cultural model for learner identity that considers the interaction between our internal sense of self and its development through interaction with externally developed identity tropes at different spatio-temporal levels. Gramsci and Foucault propose that this interaction is mediated by discursive practices that create certain social arrangements and practices that are upheld by persuasion, consensus and complicity (Benwell & Stokoe, 2006). Gee argues that the concept of recognition is a driving force behind a discursive understanding of identity (2000), referring to the way others comprehend our behaviour or identities we perform. An example given here is that disruptive classroom behaviour of African-American students in the US may be talked about as troublesome, whereas the same behaviours in White students may be framed underachieving with less negative connotations (ibid.). This specific example may hold for the US context but may not be transferrable to other contexts. Lemke (2000)  and Wortham (2006) suggest that local identity models may emerge with spatial and temporal specificity, so a student from a refugee background in one school or classroom may be figured differently from a student with a similar profile in a different setting. However, both will have been influenced by the same base assumptions at a broader societal level. This identity type is acted out by an individual in the local context and what meaning this has in the classroom is a complex interplay of individual, group and societal understandings.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 A second driving force behind a discursive approach to identity is agency, which refers to our ability to influence societal models of identity and the types of identity we can legitimately construct for ourselves. Wenger (1998) uses the term negotiability to refer to the agency that individuals are afforded within a community to negotiate meanings related to personal identities. Some people may be marginalised in these processes of negotiation and therefore denied agency in achieving the ways in which they seek to be recognised. This can be seen in the example of the African-American student above, which means this student is denied the opportunity to be recognised as a potentially good student and has limited agency in which to challenge the prevailing ideas about what kind of student they can be. The Bakhtinian concept of ‘space of authoring’ can also be used to understand the scope of agency that individuals have in constructing identities (Daniels, 2007). This asks what bounds society places on the meanings we can legitimately construct about ourselves and others, which raises questions about who controls what is deemed to be legitimate. Agency is pertinent to the issue of students with refugee backgrounds as they face severe forms of marginalisation and are therefore likely to be limited in influencing the identities they can construct in and out of the classroom.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Given these considerations the following research questions have been developed:

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 How do students in protracted refugee situations understand and experience the role of ‘learner’ and how does this affect learner identity and learning trajectories?

  1. 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0
  2. What influences processes of recognition in the learning identities of students in PRS?
  3. How do students experience agency in the learner identities they can construct in PRS?

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Methodological Considerations

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Since this research seeks to understand the sense making processes and student experience it lends itself to a methodology grounded in phenomenology. The approach adopted is Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), developed by Smith, Flowers and Larkin (2009), which is based on concepts drawn from hermeneutic phenomenology. The hermeneutic element directs the approach towards interpretation by acknowledging that our understanding of other’s experience in essentially perspectival. IPA is also viewed as idiographic in its attendance to the experiences of particular people and contexts rather than being nomothetic. The hermeneutic flavour of IPA requires the researcher to reflect on their interpretation of the account being given by the participant as well as interpreting the account itself. This dual layer of participants making sense of their own experience, perhaps for the first time in an explicit sense, and the reciprocal interpretation of the researcher creates a double hermeneutic (Mills, Durepos, & Wiebe, 2010).

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Navigating the layers of interpretation requires an interpretative process that assesses relationship between how an interviewee understands the experience they are relaying and how the researcher perceives the way the interviewee constructs this understanding. Many writers refer to this process as the hermeneutic circle, which implies an iterative approach to analysis rather than a linear or step-wise process (Grondin, 2016). This demonstrates how phenomenology and hermeneutics work hand-in-hand, as Smith and colleagues argue, ‘[w]ithout phenomenology, there would be nothing to interpret; without the hermeneutics, the phenomenon would not be seen’ (Smith et al., 2009, p. 37). To achieve this in IPA must manage the dual process of understanding what the interviewee reports in its own right, free from pre-conceived understandings (standing beside), and using previous theoretical insights to challenge what is reported and develop or shed new light on what was previously understood (standing opposite). When analysing the interview data, the researcher will then proceed in an iterative fashion through layers of interpretation using a hermeneutic circle to try to understand the interviewee’s experience as closely as possible to how they understand that experience themselves.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Thinking about interpretation requires researchers to engage reflexively with different regimes of interpretation. The experiences reported by students in this research can be obscured by epistemic violence and the associated concept of hermeneutic injustice. Epistemological violence is a form of violence that is produced through the construction of knowledge. It does not derive from empirical data itself but the interpretation of that data that problematises the concept of an “Other” (Teo, 2010, p. 298). Spivak (1993) highlights structural dimensions that privilege Eurocentric views to research above indigenous knowledge, which gives rise to epistemological structures that are “non-mutual and hierarchical” (Griffiths, 2000, p. 165). Hermeneutic injustice arises when informants are treated merely as bearers of knowledge and are excluded from its interpretation (Fricker, 2007). Medina also contends there is a communicative aspect to hermeneutic injustice (Medina, 2012). This may be realised through misinterpretation of the researcher due to a lack of adequate interpretative responsiveness in the research or because  and individual struggles to articulate their experience due to ‘structural identity prejudice in the collective hermeneutical resource’ (Fricker, 2007, p. 155). The result of these flawed interpretative practices is that the conclusions reported do not match the personal meanings of the knowledge bearers of the research and as such an act of violence has been committed against informants through marginalisation in the research.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 Issues of epistemological violence and hermeneutical injustice are clearly important to PRS as students live in marginalised communities and have very few rights since they exist in a state of exile. Medina calls for an ‘agential and interactive approach to hermeneutical injustice’ (Medina, 2012, p. 216), which requires being reflexive about our role as researchers and how the process of research may uphold structural inequality, but also through communicative practice. In this research a model of coproduction is used that involves the students in the process of interpretation rather than just as informants in unstructured interviews. This will be achieved through planning stages of interviews with the students loosely based on a three stage IPA interview model developed by Patterson (2018). Attention will be paid to hermeneutical gaps that could open within interviews by drawing on Smith et al. and their notion of standing opposite and standing beside the co-researcher to challenge and try to comprehend what they express (2009). Medina also states that ‘[n]othing short of … reversibility and reciprocity [in communicative relations] can guarantee the equality in communicative participation required by fair epistemic practices’ (2012, p. 204). To genuinely engage students in equal coproduction of knowledge about their experiences as learners I must therefore be prepared to have the tables turned and allow them to ask questions of me and the research.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Background to the Pilot Study

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The pilot study involved interviews with students known to the researcher about their experiences in accessing higher education, both pre and post access, via Skype. The results of three students are presented here as they were the only cases completed at the time of writing and there being a closer match between them in terms of their stages of education. After the interview the initial interpretation was shared with the participants to involve them in a discussion on the emerging themes. This approach is consistent with facilitating coproduction of knowledge and allowing participants to bring their own interpretation to their experiences post-interview. This second stage was also conducted face-to-face as I was already in Malaysia. The full research project aims to involve students much more intimately with the planning and research design, however given the limited timescale of the pilot project this simplified model was adopted. Students in the pilot were already enrolled in higher education programmes. Targeting the post-access demographic allowed engagement with the IPA approach and reflect on the issues related to interpretation of qualitative data discussed above but also generated some themes for comparison with pre-access students targeted in the full research project. Student participation in the pilot is therefore more meaningful rather than treating them purely as guinea pigs, which would constitute a form of epistemological violence.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 1 The three participants were all Pakistani and chose the pseudonyms Ahmad, Sarah and Jack. Ahmad is part of the Ahmadiyya Muslim minority and fled before completing secondary school and sat his IGCSE exams in Malaysia. He now studies a University Foundation Programme with a local education provider. Sarah and Jack are siblings (Sarah being older). Both are Christian and fled Pakistan after completing their secondary education. They now both study through a scholarship programme for refugee students at an International University Campus in Malaysia. They requested to be interviewed together as they felt they had many shared experiences. Throughout this interview care was taken to ensure both contributed equally and were given an opportunity to comment on each of the topics discussed so that one sibling’s views were not privileged above the others.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Emerging Themes and Discussion

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Situation Challenging Identity

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Although initially being hopeful of a better life on arrival the reality life seeking asylum began to wear on the students. Ahmad stated, ‘I start feeling that my those feelings shattered that those happiness shattered’. Sarah also uses this verb to shatter to explain her disappointment at not being able to access tertiary studies upon arrival:

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 ‘In Pakistan education was all we knew… that was the main goal, to get education, to be educated, so when that was taken away we were, like, we didn’t know what else to do in life, so we felt like our future is gone… we will only be able to do, like, small jobs, like, you know, so it was quite shattering.’

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Here Sarah refers to education as a status, being an educated person, which defines the sort of person that you are. The centrality of this status in terms of identity is quite central since without education she considers her future to be gone and that there wouldn’t be anything for them to orient themselves toward in the future. Describing this as ‘shattering’ emphasises the extent to which the way she imagines her future is completely destroyed without the prospect of being educated. Having the proverbial rug pulled from beneath her in terms of education challenges her identity and what sort of meanings she constructs about herself as she imagines a new and unfamiliar future that she can’t rationalise for herself.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Renewed Value of Education

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 This sense of loss led to a renewed appreciation for the value of education, summarised by Jack:

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 ‘Now we realize that how important is education and even though in Pakistan also our family always value education but in this particular situation we really, really  now accept that with our education we really cannot do anything.’

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 However, rather than be demotivated the students assumed greater agency in the educational process and took it upon themselves to further their education, as Ahmad comments:

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 ‘when you don’t have anything you will try to get the thing so… you don’t have the teachers and you don’t have that much opportunities that thing will make a desire inside you and make a motivation that you want to study, OK you will achieve it independently.’

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 This demonstrates a level of resilience in their identities perhaps driven by not wanting to give up on the sort of future they could imagine for themselves. Success in taking these personal steps reinforces the agency in their learner identities through a positive feedback, for example Ahmad states, ‘I am very proud that I took that opportunity and I am still studying.’

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Changing Course

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 All three students changed their original subject choice when it came time to apply for tertiary study. Jack and Ahmad switched from Engineering to Business and Accountancy respectively and Sarah switched from Biotechnology to Communications and film. Sarah explains this transition:

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 ‘In Pakistan education is more of a norm… you don’t really, you know, pause and think that oh why, why I’m doing this… [it’s] understood okay if, if you’re a girl you are going to do something related to Bio and if you’re a guy you will do Engineering or something and if you are not really good in studies you do Arts, so that’s the, you know, mindset… but when we came to Malaysia, for me it’s like, now I’m thinking what’s the best of you know I like I’m thinking in terms of my future, what I really want to do, what, what motivates me.’

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Being away from constraints imposed on learning and identities in their home country context, such as gender norms, gives a space for the students to author new kinds of learner identities through subject choice. Comments from Jack and Ahmad, however, demonstrate how the new environment still directs what sort of choices they can make:

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Jack: ‘after moving to Malaysia there was something that attracted me the most was the economic shift, you know, compared to Pakistan and Malaysia, and all these things here were, you know, quite fascinating, the currency difference and, so, and I also see that Malaysia is the hub for business and all the international brands are here, so, all these things actually really motivated towards learning business.’

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Ahmad:since child we are told you can be either Engineer you can be either Doctor. Here only, I came here and got to know these something known as Accountancy, like, there is a subject as Account and business…we never thought that we study business. I only thought that they only do business.’

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Both responded to the educational environment around them in directing their subject choice, however being able to renegotiate their educational expectations for themselves demonstrates an ability to be reflexive about learning and assume a degree of agency in directing their educational trajectories. The new environment, rather than being limiting, has broadened their educational horizon.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 ‘Refugee’ Identity on Campus

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 The intersection between being a refugee and learning was manifest through their experiences of being a refugee on campus. Jack and Sarah followed advice given by their university and didn’t reveal their refugee status to other students to other students and staff. Part of the reason for doing this was concern over potential negative reactions, as Jack comments, ‘it’s never really safe because you don’t know what kind of reaction you are we are going to get from the local people.’ Sarah also viewed life on campus as an escape from connotations associated with refugees in the predominantly Christian community she interacted with at home:

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 ‘[Campus] is, it’s like an escape you know so here everybody knows or your refugee here if it is some people would look down on you some people would be nice some people would pity you so all those things, you know, I, its way from me to, you know, forget about it.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Ahmad chose not hide his refugee status and deals with a variety of positive and negative reactions on campus. An interesting moment in the interview came when he spoke about feeling some sort of solidarity with other students with refugee backgrounds on campus. He says, ‘when you feel someone who also know that he’s your level, actually, not level, they only made the level that we are low level.’ Here he challenges the idea imposed from local students that his refugee status gives him a lower status, however it seems that despite resisting adopting this as part of his identity he faces difficulty in achieving recognition as being on the same social or academic level as the other students.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Conclusion

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Since these are only early reflections on a pilot study it is not possible to draw firm conclusions. However, the brief discussion shows that exploring ideas of learner identity has some promise for understanding how PRS students experience and construct understandings about themselves in the context of education. The short interviews of just one hour didn’t allow for deep exploration of the themes discussed, so hopefully the more complete model for the main stage of the research will allow for much richer debate and more conclusive insights and bring a stronger voice for these marginalised students in academic research.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Bibliography

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Bal, A. (2014). Becoming In/competent Learners in the United States: Refugee Students’ Academic Identities in the Figured World of Difference. International Multilingual Research Journal, 8(4), 271–290. https://doi.org/10.1080/19313152.2014.952056

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Coll, C., & Falsafi, L. (2010). Learner identity. An educational and analytical tool La identidad de aprendiz. Una herramienta educativa y analítica. Revista de Educación, 353, 211–233.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 Crea, T. M. (2016). Refugee higher education: Contextual challenges and implications for program design, delivery, and accompaniment. International Journal of Educational Development, 46, 12–22. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijedudev.2015.11.005

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Daniels, H. (2007). Discourse and identity in Cultural–Historical Activity Theory: A response. International Journal of Educational Research, 46(1–2), 94–99. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2007.07.009

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Gee, J. P. (2000). Identity as an Analytic Lens for Research in Education. Review of Research in Education, 25, 99. https://doi.org/10.2307/1167322

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51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 Grondin, J. (2016). What is the hermeneutical circle? In N. Keane & C. Lawn (Eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Hermeneutics (p. 15). Oxford: Blackwell.

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 Hatt, B. (2012). Smartness as a Cultural Practice in Schools. American Educational Research Journal, 49(3), 438–460. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831211415661

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 Kiwan, D. (2017). Syrian refugees and higher education. Retrieved 23 November 2017, from https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/news/thebirminghambrief/items/2017/06/syrian-refugees-and-higher-education.aspx

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 Lenette, C. (2016). University students from refugee backgrounds: why should we care? Higher Education Research & Development, 35(6), 1311–1315. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2016.1190524

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 McBrien, J. L. (2016). Refugees and asylum seekers. In A. Peterson, R. Hattam, M. Zembylas, & J. Arthur (Eds.), The Palgrave International Handbook of Education for Citizenship and Social Justice (pp. 143–162). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 Medina, J. (2012). Hermeneutical Injustice and Polyphonic Contextualism: Social Silences and Shared Hermeneutical Responsibilities. Social Epistemology, 26(2), 201–220. https://doi.org/10.1080/02691728.2011.652214

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 Mills, A., Durepos, G., & Wiebe, E. (2010). Double Hermeneutic. In Encyclopedia of Case Study Research. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781412957397.n122

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 Patterson, C. (2018). Constructing narrative and phenomenological meaning within one study. Qualitative Research Journal, 18(3), 223–237. https://doi.org/10.1108/QRJ-D-17-00033

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 Sam, K., & Finley, S. (2015). A teacher’s journey: a first-person account of how a gay, Cambodian refugee navigated myriad barriers to become educated in the United States. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 28(6), 714–729. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2015.1017858

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 Sfard, A., & Prusak, A. (2005). Telling identities: In search of an analytic tool for investigating learning as a culturally shaped activity. Educational Researcher, 34(4), 14–22.

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 Smith, J. A., Flowers, P., & Larkin, M. (2009). Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method and Research. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 Spivak, G. C. (1993). Can the Subaltern Speak? In P. Williams & L. Chrisman (Eds.), Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader (p. 24). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 Teo, T. (2010). What is Epistemological Violence in the Empirical Social Sciences? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(5), 295–303. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00265.x

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 UNHCR. (2009). UNHCR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas: September 2009. International Journal of Refugee Law, 21(4), 823–850. https://doi.org/10.1093/ijrl/eep028

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 UNHCR. (2017). Left Behind: Refugee Education in Crisis. Geneva: UNHCR.

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 Wortham, S. (2006). Learning Identity: The Joint Emergence of Social Identification and Academic Learning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 [1] Durable solutions sought by UNHCR are repatriation, local integration and resettlement.

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