Following a Jesuit Tradition in the 21st Century

Welongo Muzabel in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya.

Welongo Muzabel lives in the middle of nowhere, literally. His home is a refugee camp in Kenya called Kakuma, which means “nowhere” in Swahili. The site is in the town of Kakuma, hundreds of miles from the nearest city and two hours by car to the South Sudanese border. Despite Muzabel’s remote location, he has a LinkedIn page, connecting him to the rest of the world; he has also connected more closely with his neighbors who are of various nationalities and economic backgrounds. It was in Kakuma that he founded (and now runs) a nonprofit that promotes sustainable socio-economic development through education, with a focus on reproductive health. 

“We are not only refugees. We are people who have talents, people who can help others in the community,” Muzabel said in a video online.

He gives credit for his newfound confidence to an organization called Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM), a collaboration among Jesuit colleges and universities that provides online education to students in refugee camps abroad. (The diploma is accredited by Regis University in Denver, Colorado.) Professors teach students like Muzabel through learning management systems such as Blackboard, Angel and Engage, education software they have used as a teaching tool for years, albeit closer to home.

As more universities embrace online education and its ability to reach a larger, more diverse audience, providing the underserved access to higher education seems inevitable, as long as there are volunteers. That is where University of Scranton professors Aram Balagyozyan, Ph.D., and Jordan Petsas, Ph.D., come in. Dr. Petsas, associate professor and chair of the Economics and Finance Department, was already teaching MBA courses online when he was presented with an opportunity to volunteer with JC:HEM in January 2013. 

“As soon as I heard about it, I talked to my colleagues,” said Dr. Petsas. He glanced at Dr. Balagyozyan, an assistant professor in the Department. “Remember?” 

Dr. Balagyozyan nodded and smiled. 

“Aram answered yes immediately; he was positive he wanted to help,” said Dr. Petsas. They would only have a month to prepare for class, which would require a significant amount of effort. They knew, though, it would make a positive impact in the lives of others. “Moreover, we could make this impact by doing what we love and are trained to do well,” said Dr. Petsas.

The professors, both of whom received awards earlier this year from the University for  “Excellence in Integrating Mission and Justice into the Curriculum,” said how important it was to them to be able to reach students who would not have otherwise had access to higher education.

“Think about the early Jesuits who crossed oceans and mountains to serve and to help,” said Dr. Balagyozyan. “Here we are in the 21st century with what those early Jesuits would see as a golden opportunity. We can follow in that Jesuit tradition without ever leaving campus.”

JC:HEM began in 2006 through a collaborative project between the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and Mary MacFarland, Ph.D., and her colleagues at Regis University.  “We couldn’t start everywhere, so we started in three places,” said Dr. MacFarland in a 2013 TEDx talk at Georgetown University. 

Kakuma was one of those three places (as was Dzaleka, Malawi, and Aleppo, Syria, which — since the military conflict in that country — has moved to Amman, Jordan). Kakuma accommodates roughly 100,000 refugees from nine different countries who fled their native land because of war, starvation and religious persecution, among other reasons. “They live in conditions we can’t even imagine,” said Dr. Petsas. 

JC:HEM considers these people, who are prospective students, “at the margins.” The organization recently expanded to teach in refugee sites in Chad, Afghanistan and Burma. “For many of the refugee students, this is their only chance to escape their daily reality,” said Dr. Balagyozyan. 

The camps are large and often operate like small cities. There are businesses and buses, for example. Being business-savvy is important for both short- and long-term residents. For this reason, the economics course in JC:HEM’s Diploma in Liberal Studies program is now very popular.

Drs. Balagyozyan and Petsas co-taught their first course, Principles of Macroeconomics, in spring 2013 when JC:HEM was struggling to staff critical course needs in the Diploma in Liberal Studies program. The diploma, which was designed as a first-step to a baccalaureate degree, involves 15, three-credit courses taught by faculty teams. There are now 160 faculty and 36 partners across the U.S. There is also a certificate program. An admissions team carefully selects students for both programs.

Neil Sparnon, Ph.D., is JC:HEM’s academic coordinator and a member of the admissions team. He interviews students on-site. “Whenever I meet the students, I’m extremely struck by the fact that they are very ordinary students. You go in with a perception of them being refugees, of them being helpless, but they’re anything but,” he said.

Dr. Sparnon went on: “We need the voice of marginalized people so that not only can they benefit from higher education like you and me, but we also get to hear their voice.”

Drs. Balagyozyan and Petsas said that teaching refugee students online is not that much different than teaching Scranton students online. All of their economics students must complete assignments, take exams and use the comment board, which is a way of connecting, not only with their professors, but also with their classmates. However, on the JC:HEM online course comment board, students address one another as “brothers” or “sisters.” Drs. Balagyozyan and Petsas find this unique and heartening.

The professors have now taught several courses, and have no plans to stop. Dr. Petsas was recently named the Subject Matter Expert (SME) to lead the development of the economics course.  

“We’re doing a community service,” said Dr. Petsas. “It just happens to be a global community.”

Find out more about JC:HEM here.
Editor’s Note: Read the full article in the Scranton Journal online.