By: Donnie Veasey Issue: Transformation Section: Academia
Regis University Delivers Education to Those at Societal Margins
For the past several years, Denver-based Regis University has been at the forefront of an international effort to deliver online higher education to refugees in Kenya, Malawi and Syria, with future expansion to others with little access to higher education. As Colorado’s only Jesuit Catholic university, and one of 28 Jesuit Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, Regis University has been developing curriculum and teaching online courses as part of Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM), an initiative of the Society of Jesus that brings Jesuit higher education to those at the margins of society.
Working with the Jesuit Refugee Service, JC:HEM has enabled more than 300 refugees to study courses both online and on-site in partnership with a global network of Jesuit universities. Refugees can earn a diploma in liberal studies and pursue community service learning tracks for a certificate of completion in ways that benefit daily life in the camps. “Of course, Regis University is not alone in its involvement in this massive undertaking to make a positive difference,” notes Steve Jacobs, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Regis University, and one of many individuals committed to the success of JC:HEM. “More than 15 other Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States are also involved in this work.” Those participating institutions include Boston College, Canisius University, Creighton University, Fordham University, Georgetown University, Gonzaga University, Marquette University, Seattle University, St. Joseph’s University, St. Louis University, University of San Francisco, Wheeling Jesuit University and Xavier University.
Led by a passionate commitment from Regis University President Michael Sheeran, S.J., Regis University’s role has been impressive and in some ways unique. Two years ago, the university’s College for Professional Studies’ (CPS) faculty and staff initiated a credentialing process, making Regis University the first credentialing university for JC:HEM. With several other Jesuit universities, CPS faculty and staff then helped to develop the curriculum. In February 2011, CPS faculty began teaching the online courses to refugees in Kenya and Malawi. For its work with the JC:HEM program, Regis University was recently recognized with a national award, when the College for Professional Studies received the University Professional and Continuing Education Association’s Outstanding Credit Program Award. The award recognizes credit-bearing continuing education programs that are “original in substantive ways” and that aspire to and/or demonstrate “excellence in achieving its educational objectives.”
“Jesuit Commons truly provides a model to which colleagues at other institutions can aspire,” wrote Bilita Mattes, chair of the 2011-2012 UPCEA Awards Committee and associate provost for Strategic Markets, in a congratulatory letter to Father Sheeran.
In March 2012, Regis University hosted the first international JC:HEM think tank at the university’s sprawling 87-acre North Denver (Lowell) campus, where 120 Jesuit Catholic higher education leaders and innovators from around the globe, as well as staff from Jesuit Refugee Service, participated with a goal of charting the future of the JC:HEM program. Attendees represented some of the brightest and most innovative leaders of Jesuit Catholic higher education and refugee programs from 25 countries.
Among the who’s who of think tank attendees were Vincent Cochetel, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees regional representative for the United States and Caribbean; Michael Garanzini, S.J., president of Loyola University Chicago and secretary of Higher Education for the Society of Jesus; Heroic Leadership author and Jesuit Commons President Chris Lowney; Peter Balleis, S.J., international director of the Jesuit Refugee Service; author Paul Nakai, who facilitated the conference; Gregory Lucey, S.J., president of the Association of Jesuit Catholic Universities (AJCU); Charlie Currie, S.J., former AJCU president; and Mary McFarland, international director of JC:HEM and a Gonzaga University professor in Spokane, Washington. So what exactly is JC:HEM, how did it get started, who makes it work, and how is the program improving the lives of those at the margins of our society?
The seeds for JC:HEM were planted during a 2006 Regis University–sponsored international conference focusing on adult and distance learning. Then, two years ago in Mexico City, Adolfo Nicolas, S.J., superior general of the Society of Jesus, called for a renewed commitment of Jesuit colleges and universities to share the future for a humane, just and sustainable globe. “Who needs the knowledge we can share, and how can we share it more effectively with those for whom that knowledge can truly make a difference, especially the poor and excluded?” Father Nicolas questioned in his April 23, 2010, address.
In this spirit, with historic support from the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and in partnership with the Jesuit Commons and the International Jesuit Refugee Service, refugees who live at the very margins of society, be it through poverty, location, opportunity or circumstance, are engaged in Jesuit higher education.
The work was inspired by an Australian Jesuit who helped create online higher education for refugees along the Thai-Burma border. But, Father Balleis, Lowney and McFarland are credited with being the leaders of this later initiative, which is being funded through 2014 by a generous European donor. Current students are refugees living in Kakuma Camp, Kenya; Dzaleka Camp, Malawi; and are urban refugees in Aleppo, Syria. Jesuit university faculty and staff volunteer to teach and support students in their learning. The students, in groups of 30, take four to five courses each year. Students complete three certificate programs over a three-year period leading to an undergraduate diploma. The diploma in Liberal Studies is a 45-credit-hour offering awarded by Regis University. For-credit courses use immersive virtual learning environments partnered with online and on-the-ground tutors who are JRS and JC:HEM staff.
Rigorous admissions standards are observed, including evidence of English proficiency. Unique to the program, and reflective of the Jesuit educational mission, the Community Service Leadership Track offers noncredit certificates of completion that include leadership training in counseling, community health, English as a Second Language, special needs and tutor training. The first international JC:HEM think tank offered the perfect place to explore and examine JC:HEM’s current success and its future path. The focus and desired outcome of the think tank was to expand the vision and outreach of JC:HEM, “To empower those at the very edges of our societies through access to Jesuit higher education so that together we may foster hope to create a more peaceful and humane world,” notes Jacobs, who also served as conference chair. Participants came armed with intelligence, extensive interest and passion and a deep desire to ensure that JC:HEM continues to evolve as a worldwide presence. Each of the attendees vigorously participated and contributed to myriad dialogues, discussions, debates and presentations conducted during the four-day event.
During his 45-minute keynote address, UNHCR’s Cochetel did not pull any punches in telling attendees that “We need to be better when it comes to the refugee situation.” There are 11 million refugees, 27 million internally displaced persons, an estimated 3.5 million stateless persons, and 837,000 asylum seekers, who endure an average 17 year stay at refugee camps.” He noted the huge demand for higher education among refugees, especially the young ones who are often living in despair, wishing to continue their education and to be of greater service to their communities. Cochetel emphasized the benefits of higher education for refugees, noting that that education cultivates civic leadership, which is essential to any durable solution, develops skills and confidence, fosters the ability to make strategic life choices, provides training for highly qualified teachers for primary and secondary schools, and promotes economic gains.
The JC:HEM programs are coordinated by Portugal native Luis Amaral, S.J., at Kakuma—the largest of the three refugee camps with 85,000 refugees. Dr. Anne Ziegler coordinates the work at the Aleppo camp in Syria—with 10,000 refugees registered by UNHCR. And Frenchwoman Dr. Clotilde Giner serves as JC:HEM site coordinator at the Dzaleka, Malawi, camp where 16,000 refugees are located. Like all of the JC:HEM think tank attendees, Giner’s commitment to making a difference is powerful. Giner relishes her role as Dzaleka JC:HEM coordinator because it gives her that direct opportunity to combine her interest in migration and refugee issues, education and an unquenchable desire to make this world a better place.
“The job description fits me perfectly,” Giner says. “I give a lot for things I believe in. Migration and refugee issues are something I’ve always been keen to work on and therefore any opportunity I have to advocate or to defend their view or give my own views, I do. I believe so much in the JC:HEM program.”
According to Jacobs, conference chair, another aspect that contributed to the uniqueness of the think tank was that each participant was individually invited for his or her expertise, wisdom, and vision of the future. Among those attending the think tank were representatives from the Jesuit Refugee Service; the Pontificia Universita Gregoriana in Rome; Hekima College in Nairobi; the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Geneva; St. Joseph’s University Lebanon; Deusto University Spain; Asociacion de Universidades Confiadas a la Compañia de Jesus en America Latina; Australian Catholic University; Jesuit Refugee Tertiary Education Committee Australia; Catholic University of South Sudan; Institute of Advanced Technology Kenya; St. Xavier’s College Mumbai; Catholic University of Argentina; Universidad Iberoamericana Mexico; Entreculturas; Universidad Alberto Hurtado; Universidad Catolica del Uruguay; Center for Research and Action in Peace in Ivory Coast; Internet 2; GreenBridge Computing; and Jesuits from as far away as Zimbabwe, Kenya, Thailand, South Africa, Latin America, Australia, Europe and India. Father Garanzini’s keynote address, titled “The 450-Year Jesuit Mission at the Margins,” was also among the many captivating and thought-provoking presentations.
In addition to charting the future of JC:HEM and focusing on current education programs in Kenya, Malawi and Syria, conference delegates addressed topics such as curriculum, Ignatian pedagogy, human and fiscal resources, organizational structures and technology. The think tank also showcased two special exhibits that helped participants to better visualize the plight of refugees—a photographic exhibit of refugees by nationally recognized photographer Don Doll, S.J., and a display sponsored by David Yunger, CEO of GreenBridge Computing and consultant with Microsoft Partners in Learning, that demonstrated multi-point servers his company uses in emerging markets worldwide in order to enable digital access and education capacity in the developing world. Regis University’s participation in the formative days of JC:HEM came with several challenges. Bill Husson, now vice president for New Ventures and Strategic Alliances at Regis University, was at the time spearheading the university’s initial involvement with JC:HEM. Husson and others spent countless hours overseeing and orchestrating the academic and administrative efforts, including traveling to Africa and working closely with Mary McFarland, who became the international director of JC:HEM in 2010. One of the many challenges of the project involved varying competencies in computer literacy, as some of the students in the refugee camps have a fair amount of computer literacy, while for others computer and online learning is less familiar.
“Part of the initiative involves enhancing that familiarity with computing, Internet services and library resources,” says Marie Friedemann. She adds that from cultural sensitivities and social structures to values and linguistics sensitivities and meanings, “We are walking into a completely new arena, and we are going to do as much if not more learning than the students. But it’s exhilarating.”
The JC:HEM program combines the best of new technology with the Jesuit concept of Ignatian pedagogy, which emphasizes experience and new learning, reflection and evaluation, action and service. While JC:HEM does not offer immediate solutions to the refugee crisis, it brings refugees into a wider community of academic study, engages their minds and equips them with skills they can apply today, thus offering them a possibility of a life worth living and giving them confidence and skills for the future.
According to McFarland, these programs contribute hope and opportunity by developing leaders among the refugees themselves. Because of their academic experiences, in the first year alone students have created new community health initiatives and a disability center and have experienced enhanced employment opportunities with nongovernmental organizations supporting the camps. During its conclusion, the JC:HEM think tank offered a final round of spirited discussions, poignant presentations and the promise of recommendations that will guide the organization’s future in bringing Jesuit higher education to others at the margins of society. When the JC:HEM pilot programs conclude in August 2014, it is expected that more than 1,500 refugees will have participated in three countries. And the future will see expansion to other regions and needy populations.
To learn more about the JC:HEM work, watch a brief video by Mary McFarland, international director of JC:HEM, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Fk32znSt00, or visit www.jesuitcommons.com.