Barrett students win Barrett Global Explorers Grant for worldwide research projects

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April 8, 2020

For the first time ever, two Barrett, The Honors College students share a $10,000 Barrett Global Explorers Grant. Amal Altaf and Julia Jackman are sharing the funds to travel to five countries to research how refugees access higher education and the effects that has on them. 

Another honors student, Michael Colin Marvin, was awarded a $5,000 for use in researching a new method to recognize human-caused pollution and disturbances to coastal dune systems. 

Amal Altaf 

Julia Jackman

Michael Colin Marvin 

The BGEG gives students up to $10,000 to travel throughout summer to at least five different countries in three different continents or regions for a self-designed research project that spans a minimum of 10 consecutive weeks.

“The Barrett Global Explorers Grant is a concrete representation of the global engagement that Barrett promotes. It is a remarkable award for both its scope and flexibility. Few awards encourage such wide-ranging research travel plans,” said Kyle Mox, director of the Office of National Scholarship Advisement housed in Barrett at the ASU Tempe campus.

Mox said the program is much more than a study abroad scholarship. It encourages and supports real global exploration and high level research done by undergraduate students.

“Few students at this point in their educational careers would have the opportunity to travel to one country, let alone five, to do research of this sophistication.  We believe these amazing young scholars will produce new knowledge of real value to the world,” he added.

Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, all three students have cancelled their summer travel plans. However, Marvin said he will go on to defend his thesis as planned in October this year with the research data he has already collected. Altaf and Jackman have postponed their travel plans to December so they can spend their winter break and Session A of the spring 2021 semester conducting their research.  

Altaf and Jackman were excited and grateful to hear they had won the BGEG.

“Once we found out that we were finalists, Amal and I practiced many times for our pitch,” Jackman said. “We felt good about our presentation and the interview afterwards, but we also knew that there were so many other amazing projects that were up for the grant. We were shocked to find out that we had gotten the first place grant just a few hours after our interview.” 

“I was… amazed? Ecstatic? Shocked? Certainly grateful,” Altaf said. “There were a lot of emotions running through my mind at once. I read the email at least eight times before reaching out to Julia to celebrate with her. Beyond the excitement of being able to circumnavigate the globe and research a topic I am so deeply invested in, I am also greatly humbled because receiving this award symbolizes the faith that the honors college has in Julia, myself, and our project.”

Altaf is a junior pursuing dual degrees in biological sciences and global health with a minor in business, while Jackman is a junior double majoring in biochemistry and global health with a minor in civic and economic thought and leadership. 

“The project is focused on researching the barriers to refugee participation in higher education through the context of Arizona State University’s Education for Humanity Program,” Jackman said. “The project will focus on determining the types of interventions that are effective in supporting refugees through their pursuit of higher education.”

Only one percent of refugee youth worldwide receive higher education, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Jackman and Altaf’s study will explore the efficacy of Education for Humanity’s higher education program while also discerning what improvements may better serve the needs of displaced learners like refugees.

“We hope that this research is beneficial not only to Education for Humanity, but refugee-oriented organizations around the world,” Altaf said.

The pair plan to investigate how Education for Humanity has implemented its programs in each refugee community and how refugee learners can be better supported in their education efforts. Jackman said their goal is to devise specific recommendations as to how the programs can better serve the refugee community and how various other non-governmental organizations can support the initiative to provide refugees with higher education opportunities.

Altaf and Jackman met during their freshman year at the Pre-Medical Academy at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine in Phoenix. They kept ending up in the same clubs and classes, including the Refugee Education and Clinic Team (REACT) and Refugee Integration, Stability, and Education (RISE) tutoring.

Last summer, Jackman interned as a Higher Education Caseworker at the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) in Tel Aviv, Israel. This ended up being the spark that turned the wheels for this project. 

“Throughout this experience, I became increasingly frustrated with the lack of cost-effective and flexible higher education options available for the refugees and asylum seekers with whom I was working,” Jackman said. “I realized the potential that exists within ASU’s extensive online program so I emailed President (Michael) Crow to ask if we could extend ASU online to refugee learners. To my surprise, he responded and put me in touch with Dr. Pamela DeLargy, the executive director of ASU’s Education for Humanity program.”

Together, they started to plan and work with the ARDC to roll out an earned admissions program for refugees and asylum seekers in Israel so they can access ASU’s higher education platform for free. Out of this, Jackman started to talk with Dr. DeLargy about how they could turn this into a grant proposal and worked together to come up with the initial idea for the project. 

“A principle instilled in me by my parents, (is that) education is something that I value very deeply, knowing that I am extremely blessed to have the opportunities and access that I do,” Altaf said. “That said, I believe all people deserve access to education regardless of their social or socioeconomic status.” 

Altaf is very involved in the refugee community in Phoenix, through organizations such as Hands for Henna, RISE, and REACT. In August 2019, Jackman and Altaf were sitting in cell biology class, talking about the BGEG. After hearing about Julia’s summer and thinking about it in the context of her involvement with refugees, Altaf was eager to combine their efforts to address educational disparities on a global level. 

“There is nobody that I would rather be traveling with,” Jackman said. “Amal is one of the kindest, most thoughtful, and compassionate people I know, and we are so excited to be on this journey together! Having one of my best friends as my travel partner on this project is a blessing.” 

Their plan is to start in Ethiopia, one of the countries most affected by the refugee crisis. From there, Altaf and Jackman will work their way toward countries that have better managed the influx of refugees and asylum seekers, especially in terms of integrating them into higher education. From Ethiopia, they will fly to Tel Aviv, Israel, to look into how the ARDC is starting to implement the new partnership with ASU Online and Education for Humanity. They also plan to investigate the governmental barriers to refugee participation in the workforce and university education. 

“Israel is unique in that most of the refugees there have not been granted traditional refugee status,” Jackman said. “Instead, they are only given the label of asylum seeker, which makes it easier for the government to deny them social services and assistance programs, let alone higher education.”

From Israel, they will go to Al-Mafraq, Jordan to look at Education for Humanity’s longest-running program at the Zaatari refugee camp. After completing their research in Jordan, Altaf and Jackman will travel to Italy to investigate the University of Bologna’s more substantial commitment to fully-funding refugees to attend university full-time, as opposed to other nations which mostly see refugees pursuing part-time education while working full-time jobs. Then they’ll travel to Geneva, Switzerland to meet with policy makers and non-governmental organization officials who can inform them about international policy on refugee higher education. 

“We plan on ending in New York City, not as part of the grant, so that we can interact with individuals at the United Nations Headquarters and at relevant NGOs,” Jackman said. “Our hope is to have compiled our research and observations by the end of our trip so that we can present our findings to other interested organizations.”

Altaf will be incorporating the findings from this research into her honors thesis. Jackman has already completed her thesis. 

“Refugees comprise an at-risk group whose situation is becoming increasingly dire,” Altaf said. “For those of us who have the resources and opportunities to help, it is our duty to do so. It is our hope that this project not only improves the current living situations for the refugees in camps, but it also empowers refugees to improve their future. We hope that it eases the resettlement transition both for refugees and their host countries.” 

Marvin, who is majoring in geography with a minor in mathematics, will research a new method to recognize human effects on coastal dune systems said about winning the award, “I was incredibly honored and excited. I had put a lot of time and effort into writing and practicing for the defense, and it felt like a giant reassurance that this project was important and worth exploring.”

Marvin’s BGEG project is part of his greater thesis project, which looks at coastal dune restoration. His BGEG project is identifying human impacts on sand grains themselves. 

“All quartz sand grains have different shapes and sizes depending on where they came from: river, inter-tidal, glacial, etc. have different micro features, or markers that can tell you where they come from,” Marvin explained. “Aeolian, or windblown, grains that make up dunes are no different. We know what they should look like, so anything different indicates a human impact.” 

Marvin plans to collect sand samples from different “disturbed” dune systems from across the world and compare them to “control” samples, ones that are known to have minimal to no human impact. “Disturbed” or “impacted” means that humans have added some additional force to grains. For example, a higher frequency and magnitude of torque, grinding, and shearing forces (from off-road vehicles) than would occur in nature will show up on the grains themselves. 

“This has not been done before,” Marvin said. “If successful, it could act as an early warning system for coastal land management about impacts and/or act as a marker of humans in geologic time, as much sand ends up being incorporated into the rock record.”

Marvin’s thesis director Dr. Ian Walker from the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and School of Earth and Space Exploration has worked in disturbed dune systems, and this project came about as a “proof of concept” project for a study site in Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area in California. 

Coastal sand dunes are vital for a number of reasons, called “ecosystem services”, which include ground water recharge, protecting coastal infrastructure from flooding, mitigating erosion, and acting as an ecosystem for plants and animals. They also have the ability to rebuild themselves after storm events. 

“With nearly half of the world’s population living within 100 miles of coastlines, rising sea levels, and more frequent and higher magnitude storm events due to climate change, these coastal buffers against wind and wave action are even more vital than before,” Marvin said. “Ultimately, I want to help keep people safe and raise awareness about the importance and fragility of these systems, especially because I have family that lives in the coastal zone.”

Marvin plans to visit Prince Edward Island in Canada; nature preserves in Italy; Nizzanim Nature Preserve near Tel Aviv; disturbed coastal systems in England, Wales, Ireland, and Northern Ireland; and Pacific Rim National Park in Vancouver Island, Canada. 

He said the greater goal is creating healthy, dynamic coastal dune systems that provide a habitat for plant and animal systems, protect coastal infrastructure, and have minimal impact by humans, but are still available for people to use and enjoy. 

“Finding a balance between all of these is very tough, so any research that delves into this will help,” he said. “I hope to make a difference by adding a new perspective and learning as much as I can about coastal restoration and aeolian (windblown) geomorphology.”

Story by Ranjani Venkatakrishan, a Barrett, The Honors College student majoring in journalism.

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