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RI state colleges to focus on programs for refugees

July 11, 2023

PROVIDENCE – Existing workforce training programs for disadvantaged communities may soon expand to include supports targeted to refugees under a new state initiative.

The Rhode Island Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner, which oversees the state’s public university systems and workforce training, has teamed up with the National Association of System Heads, which represents the chief executives of 65 public higher education systems in the country.

Together, along with stakeholders in other sectors,the two organizations will lead a “community of practice” to conduct needs assessments and study how best to expand the RIOPC’s existing “RI Reconnect” workforce development program to serve incoming refugees.

“This idea of mobilizing public university systems in this way is very much at the heart of our work,” said Colleen Thouez, founder and executive director of the Refugee Resettlement Initiative under NASH.

The collaboration is supported by a “Catalyst Fund” grant awarded to the RIOPC from the NASH Refugee Resettlement Initiative. The fund’s purpose is to highlight the innovative practices at individual university campuses that have the potential to scale across an entire university system and beyond. Thouez said individual faculty members’ successful ideas often go unrecognized at the campus or system level, and the catalyst fund is intended to help “break silos” and recognize those ideas.

RI Commissioner of Postsecondary Education Commissioner Shannon Gilkey applied for the catalyst fund grant in November to scale up the RI Reconnect program operating at the office’s three education centers in Westerly, Woonsocket and Providence. The free program, which launched in 2020, helps connect adult students to “navigators” who help craft education plans and connect students to resources.

“We’re really looking at workforce development across the state,” Thouez said. “We understand from the data Rhode Island has produced that there is a [workforce] shortfall and that will continue to deepen.”

Thouez said with an aging workforce population and more jobs requiring postsecondary education, foreign-born Rhode Island residents have “untapped potential” to bolster the state’s labor economy and integrate into the community.

“It’s vital to the demographic and economic needs of this country that we remain open,” she said, adding that the key question becomes how to welcome immigrants and refugees in a way that is “productive for everyone.”

The initiative has the support of the McKee Administration and the General Assembly, and the community of practice will be responsible for drafting policy recommendations to submit to Gov. Daniel McKee in November in preparation for a second phase implementing them next year. The community, which includes CVS as a leading employer in the state and the nonprofit credential evaluation service World Education Services, had its first meeting last week and is meeting again this week.

“Through our involvement with NASH’s Community of Practice we can tap into myriad resources and technical expertise that help us improve our outreach and our success,” Gilkey said in a statement.

Thouez said other states around the country have used the community of practice model and tapped into the potential of public education systems with successful results. She founded the Refugee Resettlement Initiative in 2021 as a response to the influx of Afghan refugees following the sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the subsequent fall of the country’s central government. Thouez said NASH was tapped by the federal government at that time to coordinate public universities that could house some of the refugees.

Since then, the catalyst fund has also supported similar initiatives at Western Kentucky University, where the focus was on expanding an undergraduate scholarship program to refugees, and Washington State University, which mobilized the College of Nursing at WSU-Spokane to help make healthcare more accessible to refugee families.

Thouez said that because Rhode Island is a small state, the work supported by the catalyst fund has a good chance of setting an example for similar programs around the country.

“Rhode Island can be a test-case, a proof of concept for other states around workforce development,” she said.


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