Skip to main content

Can a University of Sanctuary create Sanctuary?

Larysa Agbaso, a Sanctuary graduate of MA TESOL from Cardiff Metropolitan University, shares a heartfelt piece about the positive impact the Sanctuary scholarship has had on her life, and highlights the support that shaped her positive experience.

This is a summary of Larysa’s piece, you can read the full blog here.

“Taking a postgraduate degree course in the university brought out a miraculous/dramatic transformation into my life. Although my life circumstances (financial, legal, family) remain unfavourable and adverse, my life perception has changed – I learnt how to live with trauma rather than exist under its total control.”

Larysa highlights the main aspects that helped reduce the impact of barriers to accessing, participating and succeeding in Higher Education:

Taster sessions

Cardiff Metropolitan University works with local communities and organises various accredited and non-accredited courses, summer school and courses in partnership with First Campus raise awareness of progression opportunities and raise aspirations to continue education. To make it more feasible for our summer school group, the university assisted with transport.

Each summer school course contained a short presentation on the system of higher education in the UK and possible pathways of the progression into the university. These sessions help ‘feel’ the chosen course of study before making a decision of a lifetime. Both reflective and academic writing courses helped me identify my strengths (At that time, I did not know they existed at all) and weaknesses and equipped me with the knowledge I needed later while doing my degree. ”

 Application Process 

“Every year, the Sanctuary Award is announced during Global Week at the beginning of March. With a deadline being at the beginning of July, this gives enough time to gather the necessary documentation and apply for both, a course, and a scholarship.

A negative outcome can be upsetting in any context. However, applicants from refugee and asylum-seeking background can have greater sensitivity due to their life experiences. To be more supportive, the university aims to make the process as transparent as possible. When contacting unsuccessful applicants, the scholarship team tries to ensure the response is written in a compassionate way providing meaningful feedback that highlights the positive sides of applications and suggests what can be improved to provide more information.

The scholarship information is promoted with the support of widening access team, social media and the third sector organisation working with forced migrants. However, for some of these organisations and further education colleges, higher education is often not a primary aim, especially for older persons. Thus, having some workshops with charities to educate at least one representative and having more communication between the sectors would raise more awareness and ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are sufficiently informed about available opportunities and how to apply for them. ”


“After receiving positive news about my scholarship and completing some formalities, I was invited to the introductory meeting with Paul Fitzpatrick, the university chaplain at the time, and Natalie Buckland, the Head of Global Student Advisory Service. During my time in the university, they both were the people I could contact if I needed any assistance.

This meeting became a strong foundation for the beginning of my recovery. Congratulations, words of support and inspiration helped dig out the small remaining bit of hope that hid somewhere deep.

Even now, I remember how frightened I was at that time, how afraid I was to speak and how foggy and surreal was everything happening to me. Knowing Natalie and Paul personally made me feel welcomed and special. In that meeting, we spoke about many things related to my studies, academic expectations, support, and timetable. Natalie showed me the campus and the places I might have needed primarily, School of Education, classrooms, Student Union, Academic Advice, library, and canteen. I was introduced to some members of staff as a scholarship recipient, not an asylum seeker, and I vividly remember the warm welcome and smiles on that day. This meeting has definitely reduced my fear and made the transition into the university smoother.”

Enrolment Day

” As a result of facing the complexity of the legal system, an event such as enrolment day can raise anxiety about what will happen, with expectations of questions about the immigration status and your circumstances if the person you are talking to misunderstands due to the different identification documents presented for example. For a person, who experienced a hostile environment this event can be triggering and leading to re-experiencing shame, otherness, or fear.

The smoothness of this process benefits from the university structure and size. Having a one-stop-shop structure for the department that works with international students allows the scholarship team to work closely and communicate internally about admission, immigration compliance and welfare of the students involved. This reduces the possibility of applicants having negative experiences during their time in the university, including the enrolment process.   ”

A named contact

“Scholarship recipients always can have a person they can contact or speak to if they need.This person is aware of their situation and needs and practical problems of the displaced students in general. This person provides personal support if there is a problem, for example, absence due to court appointments, issues with affording something or unexpected circumstances affecting assignment submission. This support enables students to identify and overcome barriers to achievement in their degree programme.

I did not have to go through the stress of explaining things, for example, about reporting in the Home Office, or dealing directly with different departments when I received a ban to study. I could ask for help and I could share my achievements too. Being listened to and heard, being treated as a positive and worthy person helped me rediscover trust, security and safety. The value of these nurturing relationships is in their continuity and reciprocity. “

Financial Support

“The scholarship includes a full fee waiver, assistance toward local travel to Cardiff Met campus and a lunch allowance during term time.

Importantly, this type of support does not create additional issues with the NASS support provided by the Home Office and does not differentiate between refugees and asylum seekers.”

After Study

“For some displaced students, the opportunity to keep in touch is quite important. I feel privileged to have been invited to join the university sanctuary working group.  With sanctuary champions from Widening Access, schools, Student Services, International Office and Chaplaincy, we discuss activities and events to support the displaced students, raise awareness of issues the displaced people have and promote the practice of welcome and inclusion.

I feel proud to promote the Sanctuary Award scholarship, to take part in Global week and encourage my ESOL students to participate and to continue their education. For me, reconnecting with the university is like visiting home.”

Larysa reflects back on her experience and the additional support that made her feel welcome, included and understood.

“When work with sanctuary seekers was relatively new, the university intended to create a particular team of naturally empathetic people, including chaplaincy. Initially, they have received training on the potential background of asylum seekers and refugees and heard. personal stories, allowing people to understand and sympathise.

Empathy and support are important within the team too. Oversharing of traumatic stories can affect the well-being of the person working directly with the displaced students. Having a confidential chat or debrief within the inner team to ensure that the right thing was said and/or done and to receive support from colleagues can help reduce tension, worries and create a more positive and supportive environment.

Although receiving a scholarship is of huge value for a displaced applicant, yet it is not only about the content of the scholarship but the experience the person gets while studying.”

“In 2018, Cardiff Metropolitan University became the first Welsh university to receive a University

 of Sanctuary Award.  The university actively cooperates with local community organisations such as The Welsh Refugee Council, Oasis and Displaced People in Action.”

A special thank  you to Larysa Agbaso for sharing her story, an inspiration for both universities that work with forced migrant students, and for students themselves to know there are many universities working to understand and ease access and success, for students with sanctuary backgrounds to reach their aspirations and achieve their dreams.