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Midvale Journal

Hillcrest High program provides opportunities for refugee students to succeed

Oct 04, 2021 01:24PM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High students, as part of the ROAR program, try out the climbing wall at Utah Valley University. (Photo courtesy of Hillcrest High)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Six years ago, three sisters from the French Congo walked into Hillcrest High School counselor John Oliver’s office.

The family had sought asylum and moved to Utah. However, they only knew French. So, Oliver talked to them through Google translate and learned they wanted to earn their high school diplomas.

“Two of them, they were twins, were at the end of their junior years and had a lot to make up,” he said. “They took 16 quarters of classes online to be on track to graduate. I’d see them and ask them if they were OK and they said that they’d sleep once they graduate. They knew where they had come from and saw their opportunity here and saw the value of education.”

That wasn’t all. All three of the girls, after graduating from Hillcrest, went on to college.

“That’s where my love of working with and helping refugees started,” Oliver said.

A few years later, during the 2018-19 school year, Oliver began Hillcrest High’s program, Resources Opportunity Access for Refugees, for refugee students. Since then, ROAR has continued to offer students assistance, even through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We first were able to meet monthly and had some college representatives come speak or we’d go to their campuses,” he said. “We went to college day at Westminster, or went to UVU (Utah Valley University) and they got to climb the rock wall or they’d cook with SLCC’s (Salt Lake Community College’s) culinary program.”

However, like most opportunities, those excursions ceased during the past 18 months during COVID-19. However, Oliver continued to bring in guest speakers, when allowed with health and safety protocols, from college representatives to professional soccer player Phanuel Kavita.

The school, with the help of America First Credit Union, also continued to support these students’ educational dreams. Three or four students received $1,000 scholarships to further pursue their education after high school. 

This year, Oliver has already received the green light to resume activities. On Oct. 8, he plans to take about 30 refugee students to SLCC’s culinary program so they can make a meal together.

Before that, they will meet with a college access adviser to learn about opportunities and resources available to them.

Hillcrest is home to a number of refugee students who come from countries such as Uganda, Iraq and Syria.  

“We started this program because we realized a number of these families need resources and may not be familiar with them because they aren’t from this country. We want to provide them information, resources and help. They’re a great asset to our school and to our community,” he said.

In mid- to late September, Oliver, Hillcrest Principal Greg Leavitt, other counselors and some teachers will meet in the Canyon Crossing at Riverwalk neighborhood to meet with refugee families and help bring materials and information to them where they otherwise may not be able to access because of work or transportation issues.

“We’ll go over Skyward (student information system), and grades and talk to the families about their students’ future plans,” Oliver said. “We want to provide them resources and help them know what is available.”

In addition to providing school information, Hillcrest also has a student services area where refugee students, students in need and others can gain access to laundry and shower facilities as well as a food pantry. The school also provides some health clinics or referrals, he said.

If community members want to volunteer with Hillcrest’s ROAR program and introducing refugee students to the community by sharing their professions, mentoring or other ways of helping, contact Oliver in the Hillcrest counseling center, 801-826-6020.