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Olivia Issa, SVR Co-Chair, Interview with

Iman Siddiqi, Founder of Refugee Students Scholarship Program 

February 25, 2021

Refugee Students Scholarship Program

In 2017, Iman Siddiqi, a third-year at UC Irvine at the time, applied for UC Irvine’s Dalai Lama Endowed Scholarship and received a $6,000 grant for her project entitled the “Refugee Students Scholarship Program.” With those funds, she hosted a gala that raised close to $100,000, which she continues to add to and uses to provide scholarships for refugee and asylum seeker students at schools in the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems. The funds she raised are held by a local non-profit, which agreed to serve as her program’s fiscal sponsor. Since 2017, the Refugee Students Scholarship Program has provided 15 scholarships of up to $10,000 per student.  Iman’s program primarily serves refugee and asylum seekers who have already completed two years of community college and are transfer students at a UC or CSU campus. This setup is what has allowed the scholarship to last as long as it has, as by attending a community college first, the recipients are able to meet the requirements for cheaper in-state tuition rates at these public institutions and generally only have to attend a UC or CSU for two years. As such, she anticipates being able to continue providing scholarships of comparable size for the foreseeable future.

Before receiving the Dalai Lama grant, Iman tried to negotiate with her university system, the University of California, to establish a scholarship funded by the UC Regents. She first introduced a resolution calling on the UC system to create scholarships for refugees, which was passed unanimously by several UC student governments, and she was later selected as a student advocate to introduce the resolution to the UC Regents. Unfortunately, the Regents did not find her proposal to be feasible given funding and potential politicization, but since she established  the independent scholarship, her alma mater, UC Irvine, has supported her program in other ways, such as by introducing her to UC Irvine’s scholarship gift matching program and assisting her with preparing the scholarship application and selecting the recipients. Additionally, a team at the school helped her create a “Refugee Resource Community” to provide resources to help recipient students succeed. Through the Resource Community, Iman’s team recently conducted a needs assessment which showed that their recipient students listed financial support as their top area of concern, followed by mental health support, career development, food insecurity, and help navigating visas. Her team is now working to meet each area of those needs, beginning talks with counseling services, food banks, and the school’s scholarship department.

Iman’s program originally received extensive pushback from UC Irvine students, especially after she introduced the student resolutions. She recalled that, while she held her fundraising gala, students held an anti-refugee event at the same time in the same building. As a student at Irvine, Iman worked to create a more inclusive environment at the school, hosting a “Refugee Awareness Week” in 2017 and 2018 to raise awareness of refugee issues on campus. Those efforts continue at UC Irvine today through the student group, “Peaceful Passions,” which Iman led in her time at the school.

Iman shared a few recommendations for students looking to start scholarships at their own schools. First and foremost, she suggested including the words “refugee” or “asylum seeker” in the title of your scholarship to make it easier for applicants to find the program. Second, she recommended connecting with your local community in the early stages of developing a program to ensure you know the audience you are gearing it towards, and what efforts are already in place that you could partner with. She saw this take shape as she realized that many local refugee and asylum seeker students had access to community college, but needed financial support in transferring to universities. Additionally, as her program has progressed, she has seen a big need for financial aid for asylum seekers, as they are not eligible for federal loans, while refugees are eligible. This kind of adaptability and open mindedness as you grow your program is another important skill Iman noted in sharing advice. And as for managing funds, Iman suggested that, if you are not able or willing to establish a 501(c)(3) organization for your scholarship, to partner with an established non-profit to hold funds for you as you fundraise and distribute scholarships. Lastly, Iman emphasized that, while it may feel daunting at first, creating a scholarship program as a student is achievable, and that persistence is vital in this pursuit. 

Meet SVR Co-Chair, Olivia Issa

Olivia Issa, SVR Steering Committee Co-Chair; Co- Executive Director of No Lost Generation, The George Washington University.


Olivia Issa (she/her) is a third year undergraduate student at The George Washington University studying political science and Arabic. Olivia is the Co-Executive Director of No Lost Generation GWU (NLG GWU), a student-led refugee-advocacy group on GWU's campus, and the Co-Chair of the Student Voices for Refugees Steering Committee. For the past six years, Olivia has been engaged with refugee-advocacy and resettlement work in Chicago and Washington D.C., volunteering and interning with resettlement agencies and refugee aid providers throughout both cities.

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