I arrived at Georgetown University in August 2019 to take on a semester-long position as the Jesuit chair of government department. Having taught for seven years at Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations at Hekima University College in Nairobi, Kenya, I felt it was time to take a pause to experience a different environment. I have been blessed by coming to know students at both Hekima and Georgetown from different professional backgrounds, countries and sociocultural experiences.
I was excited coming to teach at Georgetown — another Jesuit university — and looked forward to the learning experience. Even though I had completed two of my graduate degrees in the United States and had received invitations to teach or speak to students at different U.S. universities, coming to Georgetown was the first time I had an opportunity to teach a full semester at an American university.
I was not sure whether my graduate students at Georgetown would be as enthusiastic as the students at HUC or whether they would have the same passion for social justice issues facing Africa today. To my surprise, in my graduate class on political economy and transitional justice in Africa, at least five out of 10 students have had contact with or are currently conducting research on Africa. I was overjoyed to know that these Hoyas have just as much passion for changing our dysfunctional world as my students in Kenya. They have shown commitment to civil service, social justice and a critical outlook on our world.
Students at HUC were frustrated about the complacency of the West in exacerbating or fueling some of the conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia, but my students at Georgetown have expressed the same frustration. They are constantly wondering how such powers behind the dehumanization and social injustices could be confronted. A number of students have expressed to me their appreciation of the fact that Georgetown puts emphasis on social justice and student commitment to social change. I have hope that this mixture of young and not-so-young generation is committed to combating injustice in our world.
Most of my students at HIPSIR are professionals seeking to improve their skills in conflict mediations, peacebuilding, dispute resolution, diplomacy or international relations. I had a former student who, at his graduation, was 70 years old with 30 years of legal experience under his belt. At the age of 67, this well-known, established lawyer came knocking at my office inquiring about the master’s degree in peace studies and international relations. He desired to assist poor people who could not afford costly legal fees and tedious court proceedings in Kenya. He wanted to learn alternative dispute resolution as a mechanism for conflict resolution and is currently committed to his work at an alternative dispute resolution center with the potential of starting his own center in the future
Both at Georgetown and HUC, I have had students who are passionate about working with human rights organizations to advocate for the rights of victims of gender-based violence, either in conflict situations or family settings. These students have focused on raising awareness on the plight of women and girls who suffer violence, simply because of their gender identity. Other students have been keen on working with governments in the foreign service, diplomatic conflict intervention missions, and civil society organizations or nongovernment organizations committed to social justice.
It is important to realize that we are in a more privileged situation than many people, with access to the best education and some of the most excellent academic facilities in the world. Our privilege puts a lot of responsibility on us to work toward the protection of human dignity, the poor and the vulnerable. Being “women and men for others,” according to the Jesuit tradition, implies that we are committed to protecting our environment from pollution and disintegration, addressing poverty, unemployment and systemic marginalization, fighting for the rights of minorities and persons with disabilities, advocating for more inclusive and sustainable economic systems, and calling for an end to wars and choosing peaceful resolution of conflicts. The onus is on us to be the drivers of the change we want to see.
Fr. Elias Opongo, S.J., is a Jesuit chair in the government department. As This Jesuit Sees It appears online every other Tuesday.