Preparing refugees for university and beyond

Summer is over. Students have returned to campus for the new semester, and freshers have started their first courses at Tilburg University. Amongst them is a group of fourteen refugees. They are the first participants of a new one-year program that prepares refugees for university: the Academic Pre-Bachelor. We accompanied them during their first week of class.

“I see some tired faces”, says Dutch language teacher Gabri van Sleeuwen as she looks around the classroom in the Academia Building. For the young adults in her class, the past few days have been tiring. They haven’t been in a school environment for quite some time. Some of them were college students in their country of origin – Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Qatar, Saoudi-Arabia – while others fled before they could finish high school. Whatever their educational background, the transition from conflict to classroom is not without difficulty. “We moeten nog wennen”, Bassam explains to his new teacher in perfect Dutch: we’re still adjusting.    

Earlier this week, Bassam and his thirteen new classmates have been introduced to each other, to their teachers and their mentors. They’ve received their timetables for the intensive year ahead of them, and they’ve been taken on a campus tour by a seasoned Tilburg University student named Annick, who cheerfully shared the ins and outs of campus art, coffee machines and study areas. The introductory period of the Academic Pre-Bachelor program was packed into a single morning: classes started the same day.

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Tired or not, the first participants of the Academic Pre-Bachelor are highly motivated to succeed. They made it through a tough selection process. “We received around fifty applications”, project leader Kathelijn van Heeswijk says. “All applicants took entrance tests to determine their level of Dutch, English and mathematics. Based on those results, we conducted interviews. We asked applicants about their educational background, study plans, asylum procedure and living situation. Those are all factors that help us determine whether someone is a potential fit with the program. In our assessments, we also worked together intensively with the UAF, the Foundation for Refugee Students.”

The fourteen candidates who were eventually selected may not yet be university-ready, but they are university-qualified. “That’s important for us, but especially for the participants. We’re convinced that all selected participants have the ability to study at a Dutch university, and that they will make it through the Pre-Bachelor program successfully.”

Crash course

Most of the participants arrived in the Netherlands without their diplomas. “Some of them had to leave their diplomas behind in the hurry to flee, others lost their documents in another way”, Van Heeswijk explains. “Moreover, the degrees of refugees are often not recognized in the Netherlands. Our participants are automatically admissible for a Bachelor’s program at Tilburg University. Completion of the Academic Pre-Bachelor substitutes the entrance examination of the Colloquium Doctum.”

But the one-year program is more than a crash course to bring the knowledge and skills of refugees to the level required for Dutch university. “We also look beyond university”, Van Heeswijk says. “During the program, we will help participants explore what they want to study and what profession they want to pursue later in life, whether those goals are achievable and how those goals can be achieved.”

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Common goal

In the classroom, some of the students-to-be already have a clear idea of they want to do next year. Bassam wants to study Data Science, while Homa is set on getting her Law degree. The group is remarkably diverse – not just in terms of ambitions and study plans. Ehsan is a musician from Iran, Mohamed was born and raised in Syria. The youngest participant is 18, the oldest is 30. Fadi injects the class with a little humor, while others are more reserved. But the members of the first group attending the Academic Pre-Bachelor all have one thing in common: they are determined to build a new life in the Netherlands. Starting university is the first step.

“We want the class to really form a group”, Kathelijn van Heeswijk says. “It’s an intensive program and it’s a small class, so we believe that the entire group benefits if participants motivate and support each other. You can already see that happening, which is wonderful.”


During Gabri van Sleeuwen’s first Dutch lesson, the class works together on group assignments. In changing groups of two, three or four people, they discuss Dutch words with multiple meanings, form sentences with different tenses and constructions, ask each other questions and give each other explanations. In one exercise, the class is asked to pass on compliments. “You’re very ambitious”, “You’re such a motivated student”, “You have an excellent pronunciation”, they tell each other. Mohamed notices that compliments are not always compliments in Dutch. “Sometimes the Dutch say ‘great job!’, when they’re actually saying that you did something foolish.”

When the three-and-a-half-hour Dutch lesson slowly comes to an end, it’s already past six o’clock. It’s been a long day. While Gabri van Sleeuwen is wrapping up her lesson, some students start packing their bags. “We have a few more minutes”, Van Sleeuwen tells her class. “Don’t pack your bags yet.” Officially, the first refugees attending the Academic Pre-Bachelor are not yet university students – but in the end, they’re like any other class on campus.

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