Student sponsorship program in Canada

Building sustainable solutions for refugees through youth-led peer-to-peer education support.
Tertiary education

Student sponsorship program in Canada

Building sustainable solutions for refugees through youth-led peer-to-peer education support.
A group of students pose for the camera.

WUSC student volunteer groups from the University of Ottawa, La Cite Collegiale and Carleton University at the arrival in Ottawa of new students.

The project in brief

Implemented by

World University Service of Canada (WUSC)


Based in Canada, WUSC works in over 25 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. 

For the Sponsorship for Refugees Program (SRP), WUSC accepts applications only from the following countries of asylum: Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda.


The project began in 1978 under Canada’s Private Sponsorship for Refugees Program.

There is no end date and the program is sustained through fundraising and contributions of students and post-secondary institutions. 


The Student Refugee Program (SRP) is the only one to combine private sponsorship refugee admission (PSR) with opportunities for higher education and integration.

Launched in 1978 the program has since grown to support over 130 students per year through active partnerships with over 95 campuses. As an official Sponsorship Agreement Holder in Canada, WUSC has a longstanding agreement with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. This agreement enables us to bring refugee students to study in Canada as permanent residents.

WUSC identifies refugee students and grants permission to WUSC Local Committees at universities, colleges and CEGEPs across Canada to sponsor in WUSC’s name.

Crucial to the program’s success is its unique youth-to-youth sponsorship model which empowers young Canadian students to play an active role in the sponsorship of refugee students and support their inclusion and integration once they arrive in Canada. 


The WUSC Local Committees are collaborative, campus-based groups of students, faculty, staff, and alumni who are active at more than 95 colleges, universities, and other post-secondary institutions across Canada. Through these groups, over 1,000 student volunteers and alumni are directly involved in supporting the academic and social integration of refugee students on campus, and are engaged in advocating for refugee access to education and raising awareness amongst their peers and communities about forced migration. 

In addition to facilitating social and academic integration, the peer-to-peer support model applies to the funding mechanism, as well.  Each year, WUSC Local Committees (LCs) mobilize CDN $6.5 Million in support of the program through a collaborative funding model that includes in-kind contributions from participating post-secondary institutions and student levies that are voluntarily contributed by nearly one million students studying at those campuses.  The funding model developed through the SRP not only encourages ownership by multiple stakeholders and partners within host community post-secondary institutions, but allows for predictable and sustainable funding. 

Over the past three years, the number of refugee students sponsored through the SRP has doubled as it has expanded to include more colleges, polytechnics and technical institutes, and as more students became aware of, and engaged in, issues linked to forced displacement. Local Committees play a critical role in promoting social cohesion and better integration outcomes for refugee youth, as well as enhancing the sustainability of the program.

Going beyond resettlement, the SRP also provides an innovative pathway to integration for young refugees.

A 2007 study found that 97 percent of sponsored students had completed or were in the process of completing their post-secondary program with many intending to further their education. The vast majority – 85 percent – had found work in their chosen fields after graduation.




VIDEO: How the SRP changed my life.

Project aims

The Student Refugee Program (SRP) aims to expand access to third country solutions, expand access to higher education and self-reliance, and improve integration outcomes of refugee youth. A key component of the initiative is to facilitate social cohesion between refugee students and host-community youth through a peer-mentorship model that includes both host-community youth and refugee student alumni. The program aims to:

  • Foster greater integration for the sponsored student.
  • Provide an opportunity for Canadian students, faculty members, and the broader public to learn first-hand about newcomer integration.
  • Fosters greater cross-cultural understanding and contributes toward more welcoming communities.

Resources used

  • Fundraising conducted by Local Committee members.
  • Human and financial resources used for travel to university and college campuses across Canada to provide training and coaching to Local Committee members.


WUSC works in partnership with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the Government of Québec, Windle Trust Kenya and Uganda, UNHCR, and Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) in Malawi, and with more than 95 post-secondary institutions across Canada – including universities, colleges, and CEGEPs – among other partners.

It mobilizes over 1000 student volunteers and campus staff/faculty each year in support of refugee integration, and educates tens of thousands more through public engagement activities.

Main activities of the project

The SRP operates under Canada’s PSR Program, which enables WUSC to select refugee students, recognized by UNHCR, in their country of asylum and match them with sponsoring WUSC Local Committees at post-secondary institutions in Canada.

The WUSC Local Committees at universities, colleges, and CEGEPs across Canada then sponsor under WUSC’s agreement with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) which sets out the roles and responsibilities of the sponsors. These Local Committees and their post-secondary institutions take on the costs of education and settlement of sponsored refugee students for their first year in Canada, and provide essential integration support.

To facilitate the selection, preparation, and immigration of students, WUSC relies on the cooperation of many international partners, including a variety of government ministries in the refugees’ host country and local NGOs.

In most cases, WUSC also works in collaboration with its own overseas offices, which provide local oversight to the SRP program in addition to carrying out other development programs.

The program helps to:

  • Improve refugee self-reliance through the provision of post-secondary opportunities, access to employment, and broadened networks in their country of asylum.
  • Deepen understanding of forced migration within host community and post-secondary institutions in Canada and foster greater inclusion and social cohesion between host communities and refugees.
  • Expand access to tertiary education and third country solutions through partnerships with non-traditional actors: students and post-secondary institutions.

Challenges and how they were overcome

Academic transition

The academic transition of students to new academic environments, and challenges related to studying in their non-native language are bridged through pre-departure language and skills (e.g. computer) courses, but have varying degree of success, depending on the individual capacity and skills of each student.

Gender parity

WUSC implements large-scale programming at lower levels of education to improve retention rates and education outcomes of girls and other particularly marginalized groups. It has also adapted its programming to allow for lower minimum academic requirements for girls for admission.

Admissions and Access

We need to ensure that typical required documentation for admission, and in some cases, when they do not meet the minimum criteria of the school are waved. Close collaboration with UNHCR, IOM, our embassies abroad, and the host-country government is needed to ensure the TIMELY arrival of students in August, for classes in September. Delays in obtaining exit visas can mean the need to postpone students for a full year.


Because students are on campus for only 2 - 4 years, volunteer turnover is high. WUSC works with campuses to "institutionalize" the program, and embed it within an existing department that is supported by a staff of faculty advisor.  WUSC also conducts regular annual training for student volunteers and provides ongoing remote coaching and support. To ensure that there is consistent financial support for refugee students, WUSC staff train and support groups to negotiate tuition and fee waivers for refugee students and to hold campus referenda to implement a levy paid for by enrolled students to support one or more SRP students on their campus.

Xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments

Negative public perceptions of refugees can limit the willingness of students on campuses and post-secondary institutions to engage with the program, thereby limiting the growth of the Student Refugee Program. This can also impact the experiences of refugee students

WUSC student groups take an active role in raising awareness on issues related to forced displacement on campus and in their communities, actively working to share positive stories and change the narrative around refugees and forced displacement.They are supported by staff to design activities and events, and to take action.

Expectation Management

Many student volunteers have never participated in a resettlement process before, and may have unrealistic expectations around how quickly newcomers will integrate or the challenges that may arise. They may also be unaware of the power dynamics that can emerge between newcomers and the individuals responsible for financially and socially supporting them during their first year in Canada.

Extensive training is provided to student volunteers and to refugee students to clearly outline expectations, the roles of the volunteer group, and what each party should expect from each other over the next 12 months. WUSC provides ongoing coaching support to volunteers and refugee students over the course of the year to address issues that may emerge.

Results of the project

Since the Student Refugee Program began operating in its current format under Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) Program, the SRP has enabled more than 1,900 refugee youth to continue their post-secondary education in a safe and secure environment.

In August 2019, the number is expected to surpass that of 2000 persons. Former refugee students, in turn, become ambassadors for the refugee response on their campus and beyond, as they provide insight to fellow Canadians into the challenges facing those forcibly displaced globally.

WUSC is now seeking to share their experience and promote their model to other countries to support the expansion of complementary pathways for admission for refugees through education and student to student sponsorship.

With thousands of Canadian youth volunteers engaged, WUSC is working to expand into other models of community sponsorship.

  • 74% of participating host community youth reported that they remain actively engaged in global issues, with 34% volunteering to support newcomer settlement and 19% sponsoring additional refugees outside this program.
  • 82% of host community youth reported that their own involvement in the project helped increase the awareness about forced migration of their friends, family, classmates, and co-workers.
  • 93% of refugees resettled via the program report a sense of belonging to their host country and community (Canada).
  •  9 in 10 refugee students involved in the program have completed post-secondary degrees.

Next steps

WUSC continues to explore opportunities for the expansion of higher education opportunities for refugees in Canada and internationally, through policy dialogue, by sharing technical expertise, and engagement of post-secondary communities and students in other countries as actors and key contributors to refugee inclusion and social cohesion in tertiary education.


Submitted by:

Michelle Manks, Senior Manager, Durable Solutions for Refugees, World University Service of Canada (WUSC)