Through a program called Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins, Georgetown faculty and staff are teaching online courses to refugees in Africa and the Middle East.
Founded in fall 2010 as a pilot program by a collaboration of Jesuit universities and organizations such as the Jesuit Refugee Service, Jesuit Commons uses distance-education tools to connect faculty members from U.S. Jesuit universities with refugees in United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees camps.
While Georgetown was part of the founding team and contributes teaching staff to the program, the university further increased its involvement by donating Kindles, which allow books and assignments to be downloaded for future use without a constant internet connection.
Jesuit Commons currently works with four UNHCR camps in Kenya, Malawi, Jordan and Syria, although the Syrian site is no longer operational due to warfare. Approximately 160 faculty members from 36 U.S. universities and 363 students are participating.
Jesuit Commons is seeking additional funding in order to increase its staff, infrastructure and technology, as well as to add seven new sites in Afghanistan, Chad and the Thai-Burmese border.
Georgetown faculty members have been primarily involved with the camp in Kakuma, Kenya, which is composed largely of Somalis fleeing a prolonged drought.
In June 2012, several Georgetown faculty members, including Vice President for Mission and MinistryFr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., and representatives from the College Dean’s office toured the camp and met the students.
Jesuit Commons Academic Coordinator Neil Sparnon stressed that public perceptions of refugee camps are often inaccurate.
“When most people think of refugees, they think of people setting up a short-term camp,” Sparnonsaid. “The data that we have is the average stay in a refugee camp is 18 years.”
In response to this long-term nature, Jesuit Commons offers refugees three-year, 45-credit liberal arts diplomas, accredited by Regis University in Denver.
Georgetown Associate Vice President for Compliance and Ethics James Ward, who teaches an online Jesuit Commons class in interpersonal communications, emphasized the refugees’ eagerness to learn.
“They are hungry for education and thirsty for knowledge and contact with people in the United States and elsewhere,” Ward said. “They want education even if they can’t get a job like a Georgetown student might be able. They have hope and they can use their education to become leaders in the refugee camps.”
Sparnon added that the program’s value exceeds the information taught in the classroom.
“We expect our students to use their learning in their environment,” Sparnon said. “It’s not just about employment — it’s about enriching their lives. We hope for these people to use their skills wherever they are.”
Campus Ministry Interreligious Coordinator Lisa Pannucci, who has taught an online Jesuit Commons class on world religions, said that the project embodies Jesuit values.
“The idea [that] we only engage our Georgetown bubble is no longer the norm,” Pannucci said. “We are trying to expand not only our perspectives but also the perspectives of the students we work for.”