DECEMBER 2010 | VOL. 11 NO. 4  
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Distance Education
Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins
 Dr. Mary McFarland
Gonzaga University

Imagine, “Since the time I was born I was brought up in a horrified and poor state in one of the villages in Huba Mountains. That was due to the effects of the endless civil war, which I had experienced, that is to say, the war existed before I was born. Due to the above mentioned chaos, I lived the life which totally knew not even parental love and care as everyone the family goes his/her own direction in hope of getting survival – I was lucky to escape the forest of bullets…There is not a single person in the whole country who has access to the learning …”

Thanks to an initiative developed by AJCU President Rev. Charles Currie, SJ and Rev. Peter Balleis, SJ, International Director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), this refugee now has higher education available in the refugee camp where he lives. Though often thought of as transitory, refugee camps and refugee populations are increasingly static.

Recent JRS data suggests that as of 2009 the average stay in a refugee camp is 18 years. In that time a generation will pass away without either returning home or being resettled, while another will have been born in a camp. Many refugees have had access to elementary education, some to secondary education, but very few have had access to higher education. Refugees tell us losing hope of education is hardest to endure.

In 2004, Fr. Currie issued a call to action for US Jesuit Universities to serve the poor and unserved by sharing the richness of higher education. Under the umbrella of the Jesuit Commons led by Chris Lowney, a new entity, Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM), has developed. With support from Jesuit Universities, JRS, JesuitNET, and foundation support, refugees in Kakuma Camp, Kenya, Dzaleka Camp, Malawi, and Iraqi refugees living in Syria are beginning to access Jesuit higher education online.

Virtual immersive learning environments will help faculty and staff reach over 1,200 refugees by 2013 and in doing so will help develop a model for higher education at the margins that is sustainable, scalable, and transferrable - the litmus test encouraged by Secretary of Jesuit Higher Education Rev. Paul Locatelli, SJ before he passed away.

JC:HEM offers an academic Diploma in Liberal Studies and Community Service Learning Certificates (CSLC). The refugees, through JRS, identify the focus of the topic for the CSLC and US faculty partner with the JRS-JC:HEM team on-site to develop the curriculum. Though the internet is often considered to be a tool of richer societies, it also offers the means to reach out not only to refugees, but also to other groups on the margins – the poor, the geographically isolated, and the physically disadvantaged.

With the help of Jesuit Universities, JC:HEM seeks to bring these groups into a wider community of academic study, to engage their minds and equip them with skills that can be applied today, within their own communities. Special appreciation is extended to Gonzaga University and Regis University for their direct support of the JC:HEM program, and to over forty faculty members from approximately 17 Jesuit Universities who have already volunteered to participate.

To meet some of the refugee students and the faculty who serve them, please visit For more information or to volunteer to teach, tutor, design curriculum, share IT skills, and more, please contact Dr. Mary McFarland at or Chris Lowney at