Following a Jesuit Tradition in the 21st Century

University of Scranton professors serve refugee communities through Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins.

Welongo Muzabel in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya.
Welongo Muzabel in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya.

University of Scranton professors serve refugee communities through Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins.

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.

More from Drs. Petsas and Balagyozyan

Tell me how you were convinced/motivated to teach through JC:HEM, and why.

Dr. Petsas: As much as you are interested in the answer to this question, I am somewhat surprised that you are asking it. Being trained as economists, we evaluate on almost subconscious level the costs and benefits of pretty much every aspect of life and especially of the usage of our own time. As soon as the opportunity of teaching for JC:HEM came up, it became almost immediately clear that we are going to take it. The reason for this is quite simple: while we knew that it would require considerable amount of our time and effort (and it did), by devoting these resources we could make a significant positive impact in the lives of those who most need it. Moreover, we could make this impact by doing what we love and are trained to do well. So why shouldn’t we jump on this opportunity?

Before you taught through JC:HEM, did you serve poor or refugee communities in another way?

The answer is yes.

Dr. Balagyozyan: Since 2009, I am a volunteer at a small, non-for-profit organization called Adhunika. The goal of Adhunika is to promote education and technology usage among underprivileged women in Bangladesh. Adhunika’s Women Center in Dhaka city, Bangladesh, provides free computer training, online and onsite classes/seminars, and career, health and educations counseling. As an active volunteer at Adhunika, I help other volunteers to organize and run fund-raising events here in the New York/New Jersey area. Funds raised through these events are essential for maintaining the facilities and staff at Adhunika’s Canter in Bangladesh.

Dr. Petsas: From 2002 until 2008, I have served on the Parish Council and as an Assistant Treasurer at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Scranton, PA.

Why is higher education important for all?

Dr. Petsas: Education for all promotes social justice and the quest for social justice (which can be found in a lot of places starting from the philosophy of St. Ignatius Loyola to the philosophy of the Gates foundation) can be supported from many different perspectives. One obvious perspective is humanitarian; it is hard to justify why a child born and raised in say Sub-Saharan Africa should not be able to take advantage of the same cutting-edge health care and education that exists in, say, Northern Europe.

It can even be justified from the cold-blooded perspective of economics: education is one of the few phenomena that entail what we in economics call “positive externalities.” What it means is that the benefits of a person being educated are reaped not only by the person herself but also by the many bystanders who surround the person. For example, if my neighbor’s daughter earns her degree from the University of Scranton, it increases her chance of living a successful, fulfilling, and productive life. It also benefits her family and relatives, her neighbors, their children, and other bystanders. It benefits all others because they now have a more knowledgeable and possibly more successful person around who can serve as a positive inspiration and reference for others. An educated person is not only less likely to be a drag on societal resources but is also more likely to be a contributing member of the society. It is thus not surprising why the measures that gauge the level of education in the society (e.g. literacy rate and the percentage of population with post-secondary education) are often viewed by researchers as indicators of a healthy, functioning, and productive society.

How does what you're doing through JC:HEM serve the Jesuit mission?

Dr. Petsas: It is hard to think of how it doesn’t. What JC:HEM does and promotes is almost in perfect harmony with the Jesuit mission. Except for a minor difference, it does exactly what medieval Jesuits used to do. And the difference is based on the fact that in order to promote the Jesuit ideals (social justice through education, faith, Cura Persionalis, Magis, etc.), medieval Jesuits often had to cross significant geographical obstacles, while JC:HEM promotes the same ideals remotely, connecting educators and students around the world using the internet and technology (to be precise, I must mention that there are still many colleagues who do the hard job of volunteering for the Commons on the ground).

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