Nay Seya is at the top of his class at Harding High School. He likes art class, chess club, and playing sports like golf and wrestling. Next year, he'll attend Bethel University with a scholarship aimed at supporting Karen and Karenni refugee students. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

Eighteen-year-old Nay Seya first visited Bethel University’s Arden Hills campus as a high school junior. He took a health care class there through Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, a state program that allows high school students to take college courses.

“I loved the community and overall the aura there,” Nay said. “It’s a small school. It’s not really big like the [University of Minnesota]. The people we met there were very nice.”

Another important factor: “The food was very good, for college food.”

So when one of his counselors at St. Paul’s Harding High School told him about a new scholarship at Bethel for Karen and Karenni students, Nay decided to apply.

“I just thought I had a chance,” he said.

And he did. Nay will join Bethel’s freshman class in the fall, one of the first five students to be awarded the Fight for Something scholarship for Karen and Karenni students. The scholarship, a collaboration between Bethel University and the nonprofit Urban Village, aims to provide scholarships to at least 30 students over the next four years.

“Our goal is to make it as affordable as possible first, because that’s obviously the biggest barrier,” said Paul McGinnis, Bethel’s vice president of enrollment and marketing. “But then after that, it’s making sure that it’s not just getting students here. It’s making sure they succeed when they’re here.”

Karen refugees, fleeing violence and oppression from the government in Myanmar, began to come to the United States in the mid-2000s. Minnesota is home to the country’s largest Karen community, with about 20,000 residents, according to the Karen Organization of Minnesota. The majority of Karen people in Myanmar and Thailand are Buddhist, but most Karen refugees in the United States are Christian, according to the International Institute of Minnesota.

To McGinnis, supporting Karen refugee students fits naturally with Bethel’s mission and history. “We were started 150 years ago to serve Swedish immigrants fleeing persecution in Europe,” he said. “We think it’s a unique opportunity to help another group of people facing hardships in a country that’s still new to them.”

Bethel is a popular option for Karen students, in part because of the faith connection, said Jesse Phenow, director of the Urban Village, a nonprofit focused on providing support to Karen youth. Both Bethel and the Karen community have strong ties to the Baptist denomination. With the scholarships, Phenow hopes to make the cost of a Bethel education comparable to that of a two-year college—and launch students into careers of service.

“There’s a real desire from the community and from Bethel to make it more feasible for this community to go to school there,” Phenow said. “We’re hopeful that these recipients will be committed to giving back to their community.”

The scholarship grew out of an informal fundraising effort by Phenow and other Bethel alumni. Bethel, an evangelical Christian school, provides matching scholarships for funds raised through churches. When a Karen student from Roseville wanted to attend Bethel, Phenow and others fundraised for her tuition through a local church.

Then, Fight For Something—a socially conscious entrepreneurship company founded by Bethel alumni that raises funds for various causes—pledged to donate $100,000 to the Urban Village’s scholarship efforts through 2026. The Urban Village approached Bethel about formalizing the scholarship. For every $3,500 the Urban Village contributes for a scholarship, Bethel provides $7,500. That totals $11,000 students can receive each of their four years at Bethel.

That won’t cover the full cost of a Bethel education: The total sticker price before financial aid tops $40,000 annually. But combined with other merit scholarships, federal Pell Grants, and state grants, it will come close, Phenow said.

Compared to other scholarships, the Fight for Something application process felt “friendly,” Nay said. Instead of multiple rounds of essays and recommendation letters, common in many scholarship applications, he sat for an interview with people who were “not as scary or as intimidating.”

Students who receive the scholarship will have to take a financial literacy class at the Urban Village to learn how to piece together their remaining college expenses. They’ll also check in with the Urban Village regularly, meet with other Karen students already on campus, and develop peer support among the cohort of scholarship students.

“We’re not just writing students a check and saying, hey, best of luck,” Phenow said. “We’re planning on investing in these kids over the next four years.”

“It’s very nice because I have other people like me that I can rely on, who will know my situation and I will know theirs, so we can have each other’s back,” Nay said. “The last thing we need is for Karen youth to go into higher education and fail, which would just make the view of higher education even worse in the Karen community.”

Nay’s two older siblings started the college process by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, but neither ended up applying to college. Instead, both took jobs in a factory. 

“In general, college is really intimidating to the Karen community,” Nay said. “They think they should just go work right after high school, instead of believing they could pursue higher education. I just wanted to be one of the many Karen youth applying to college to change that mindset.”

Nay hopes to study psychology to become a therapist or psychiatrist, as a means of shifting mindsets in the Karen community. But those professions require college degrees. And the financial burden of college seemed daunting: His family could not afford to pay, and taking on student debt did not feel like an option. Nay considered joining the military to pay for college. 

But once he received the Fight for Something scholarship, a four-year degree felt attainable.

“It makes me and my family way more stress-free,” he said.

Scholarship applications for the 2023-2024 school year are now closed. High school juniors interested in applying for the 2024-2025 school year can find more information here.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...