The jesuit commons: higher education at the margins program by Theogene Baravura


THEOGENE BARAVURA is among the first graduates of the Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC: HEM) program, having completed a three-year diploma in liberal studies with a concentration in education. Since graduating, Theogene has gone on to become Lead Academic Tutor for the program in Malawi, supporting the next wave of refugee, asylum-seeker and host community students in their studies and developing an approach to student support which is rooted in Theogene’s own experience as both a student and a refugee. Theogene’s research interests include community development, pedagogy, and personal growth and development.


Over the last decade, the number of refugees and asylum-seekers trapped in situations of prolonged displacement around the world has risen. The individuals caught in these situations are often portrayed as ‘victims’ or defined by their status as recipients of aid from humanitarian agencies. These displaced people and their communities can and should be re-conceptualized and instead defined as self-reliant and capable of contributing to their own development. However, in reality, there are many legal and political restrictions faced by refugees in host countries and these re-conceptualizations have not readily taken place. One important way to change this is through providing opportunities for refugees to access higher education. With such education, individuals defined as refugees can become more self-reliant and further develop the capacity to determine and make decisions affecting their own lives.

This report reflects on the Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC: HEM) diploma program, which is delivered through a partnership with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), in Malawi, Kenya, Myanmar, and Jordan since 2010. The JC: HEM higher education program’s official motto is ‘Transform Thinking…Transform the World,’ and its aim is to bring together local and global teachers, learners, and ideas through a collaborative and participatory online learning experience between instructors and students. The JC: HEM distance learning program is one among a handful of international initiatives that provide opportunities for higher education to people located ‘at the margins’ of societies, predominantly refugees, who would not have access to it otherwise. Among the goals of JC:HEM are increasing refugee capabilities and shifting how refugees see themselves and their life situation.

This paper looks specifically at Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi as a case study to explore the practical challenges and accomplishments in the implementation of higher education in Dzaleka. There has been little formal research or social data collected about the program, and about the camp site in general, despite it being operational in Malawi since 1991. A handful of international volunteers and student researchers have formally explored some social issues in the camp, but there remains much more to be done in the community.

As a practitioner, I see education as a community project. Education ultimately helps address community issues such as poverty, child rights and protection, and leadership challenges. Although the academic achievements of students become the main tool to assess the effectiveness of the learning program, educational achievements should also have social and moral merits. For a refugee community, such social and moral merits are very much needed in order for refugees to survive and thrive in new communities and within the new cultures and traditions of host communities. Therefore, this report centers on two main findings: 1) Planning ahead for academic and individual growth helps students prepare for a different online-based education and academic achievement; and 2) Helping students to understand the outside world, their refugee situation, and the challenges they will face as they prepare themselves to return to their lives that will make a difference for the betterment of their communities. Education, particularly in the area of liberal arts, is a key tool for the development of individual and community resilience in camps; developing one’s potential as a democratic human being along with promoting social justice.

Dzaleka Refugee Camp

Dzaleka refugee camp, located in the central region of Malawi, hosts approximately 18,800 registered refugees and asylum seekers, from a total of 14 different countries[1]. These displaced persons originate almost exclusively from the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions, namely the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Burundi, with smaller populations from Somalia and Ethiopia. With very few exceptions, refugees are forbidden from working in Malawi and must rely on diminishing food aid from international donors. This situation means that many refugees are forced to find informal work opportunities outside of the camp to support themselves and their families. Therefore, there is also a role for JC: HEM in contributing to building the livelihoods of refugees, particularly if the host country environment is favorable.

The Jesuit Commons: Higher Education At The Margins Program

Jesuit and other mission-aligned universities and professors provide online courses for a three-year Diploma in Liberal Studies[2] administered under the umbrella of JC: HEM and awarded by Regis University. Each course takes eight weeks to complete and the diploma program requires completion of fifteen courses in total. Students choose either business or education as their concentration for the last five courses. Since the JC: HEM program began its three-year distance learning diploma in 2010, more than 40 students have completed it, with almost 60 students currently enrolled and completing courses. Some graduates are working informally as English as a Second Language teachers in the camp, or facilitating trainings for others based on their learning through JC: HEM. For example, two Business concentration graduates facilitated a three-week Business Skills Training for more than 100 camp residents last year. These types of activities should continue to be supported to ensure that JC: HEM remains connected with the communities it serves.

Educational Challenges For Students

Distance learning within the camp environment presents students with a number of challenges, many of which are particular to the unique learning environment within a refugee camp. Students initially struggle with understanding the effectiveness of the learning experience and approach at JC: HEM, unfamiliarity with technology, using the internet for academic purposes, and the language of instruction. Processing large amounts of information when reading, exposure to new online learning materials and experiences, the use of English as a third or fourth language, and critical thinking differences that are highlighted by intercultural communication are significant challenges.

Most of the academic challenges that students face have been observed to be more acute in the online learning environment; in particular the critical and creative use of information. These challenges can range from plagiarism to passive learning, and can negatively affect students’ progress. For the majority of students, their past education was centered on reproducing others’ perspectives/theories as their own ideas and giving back what an instructor has taught them, without acknowledging the source. To overcome a focus on memorizing and the extremely limited access to academic resources the students had throughout their primary and secondary learning, individual tutoring support and mentorship are necessary. Other academic challenges include developing soft skills such as time management, reading, research, writing, and communication skills. These challenges have a direct effect on the students’ academic performance, making it difficult for them to meet the American and Jesuit educational standards and fully realize their learning journey at JC: HEM in general.

Students are also exposed to new online learning materials and experiences, and are presented with straightforward access to information on any topic they may need for their assignment on the internet. However, students face challenges when selecting suitably academic articles or information, and when deciding how to use them in papers. For example, writing a paper in an APA format and following citation and quotation rules is particularly not easy for students because these concepts are entirely new.

English communication is another big challenge for students, whether in reading, researching, writing or general understanding. Many students are exposed to a large volume of reading materials in English each week, which often takes time to adjust to. In my case, which is not unique amongst new diploma students, I had a low level of written English upon entering the program. It took strong individual commitment to personal development in order to understand and apply new knowledge in this fourth language.

Responding To Challenges

There are multiple ways of responding to such student challenges. The strategy of planning ahead is a student support strategy I developed as the Lead Academic Tutor after noticing an increase in academic writing issues and a decrease in students’ motivation for learning. I believe this was due to the new learning style used by JC: HEM that was not addressed directly by online JC:HEM tutorial support. The strategy provides a face-to-face learning opportunity for students. As students complete online coursework, online instructors and tutors regularly communicate students’ learning needs with on-site tutors. On-site tutors then plan, organize, and deliver necessary support for students, and communicate the progress and outcomes to online instructors. On-site academic tutors are JRS staff or volunteers working within the JC: HEM program who are committed to assessing students’ academic needs. Students are also encouraged to help each other.

The planning ahead on-site support process deals both with students’ academic needs (English, computer, research/reading/writing, communication skills) as well as with questions related to improving their life in the refugee community more broadly. This on-site learning experience highlights the importance of forming a community of learners, which gives students an opportunity to develop skills in communication and form relationships while working on their assignments. This strategy supports students to meet deadlines with their strongest work, while developing the knowledge and skills needed for a multicultural community. In addition, students meet the daily challenges encountered in their community with confidence and pride, and we can see progress made by students through improvements in their online contributions and paper submissions.

In addition, the planning ahead strategy allows for the organization of service learning activities that can get students involved in community work to develop their social, emotional, mental, and intellectual abilities. Students develop personal abilities and capacities along with their critical thinking abilities when they engage in service learning activities, which are a key element in the liberal studies curriculum at JC: HEM. Through service learning activity, students are able to consider and discuss existing issues in the refugee camp. Tutors facilitate this work after having identified specified objectives to be achieved. One important, recurring refugee community issue that worries many students is poverty and its effects, which will be discussed further in the following section.

Using Education For Understanding Poverty And Moving Beyond The Refugee Life

JC: HEM helps students to better understand and navigate some of the particularities of life as a refugee that affect their academic performance in ways that may not always be expected. Helping students understand their refugee situation, its challenges and opportunities, will not only make them happier about who they are, but will also help them to move on with life by perceiving new options and new horizons, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a ‘refugee’.

One major problem in refugee situations is poverty. However, many refugees, including students in the JC: HEM program in Malawi, misunderstand poverty. In turn, this may lead to short-term focus on basic needs like food, water, clothes, and shelter. For instance, while it is true that refugees in Dzaleka do not receive enough food to feed their families for a whole month, as the ration should, the monthly distribution is not the only means through which to gain these necessities. When faced with the challenges of poverty, students are uniquely positioned to find and develop new strategies to deal with the situation. They are able to draw on their leadership and critical thinking skills to try out pathways and options that other refugees often see as risky or sometimes irrational.

What is the meaning of poverty? And why do tutors look at it as a very important topic to analyze together with their students? Poverty is anything that can contribute to the shrinkage of one’s access to material or non-material resources, beyond simply a lack of financial well-being to which refugees often limit their understanding. However, with education about current realities, it is possible to re-conceptualize how resources can be regained through developing knowledge and skills in interpersonal and intercultural communication, through logic and knowledge, leadership, and psychology. Addressing poverty issues in an educational environment is absolutely crucial to students’ motivation. Consequently, refugee students’ academic performance, perspective on life, and overall success may be highly dependent upon how effective they are in resolving problems of poverty.

A student can place priority on education and personal growth in a situation where there are limited job opportunities and where educational values are seen as unlikely to help one meet his or her basic needs of food, shelter, and the like. Such life goals, or values that support lifelong learning, development and ethics are not easily understood to have utility in a refugee camp survival context. Students need a strong heart to balance all the aspects of their lives, especially when they also have to commit to their daily household chores, sometimes also acting as the breadwinners for their families. At the same time, they also need to stay committed to the JC: HEM program. If their family and community pressures are too much, their academic performance can be affected. The specific challenges related to maintaining a strong performance in their studies must be recognized. In some cases students come to receive their online higher education without having had any breakfast, and they may be unsure if they are going to get anything else to eat when they return home.

A liberal studies education equips JC: HEM students with the knowledge and skills to enable them to know where their community is heading or what they are experiencing. Courses like Person and Conduct; Logic and Knowledge; Leadership Theory; and General Psychology, alongside service learning practice, give students a strong basis to not only understand what their communities are struggling with, but to discover and understand their abilities and responsibilities towards the refugee community. The discovery of one’s ability and responsibility goes along with the discovery of one’s life mission. However, the knowledge and skills students receive through courses is not normally enough to enable them to be conscious of their abilities. For some, it is difficult to develop a thorough understanding of critical thinking from scratch in just a few days. However, for others, critical thinking is like a lifestyle. This is where tutors can help students apply the knowledge and skills received from courses in the community.

The main role of on-site JC: HEM Tutors at Dzaleka is to help students connect the theories and concepts learned in class to their communities. Tutors put students in closer contact with their community and its unique problems to their great learning advantage. They help students develop their critical thinking abilities through service learning activities, where students can select community learning activities relevant to their interests and realities, such as volunteering at the schools, joining committees in the camp such as those working against Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV), interpreting for different organizations around the camp, and connecting with the wider community to change their preconceptions of refugees. On-site tutors sometimes have to focus on a very controversial topic or specific challenges facing the refugee community, researched and studied with students. There are no clear answers on addressing poverty as it is seen in a refugee camp, for instance. However, JC: HEM tutors and the liberal studies can make a difference in suggesting to students some of the various and possible alternative approaches to such situations. After completing and reflecting on these experiences, students consciously grow as leaders and learn more than through being lectured or simply reading a book.

Shifting Power To Refugees

The JC: HEM distance learning program is designed for people physically located at the margins of society who cannot access higher education, with refugees currently making up the majority of students[3] in the diploma program. The objective of this program is to provide students access to tertiary education while simultaneously supporting positive social development for individuals within the camp environment. JC: HEM students may expect to only develop intellectually because of the online learning experience, but the liberal studies education is intended to be transformative, with students developing problem-solving skills, experiencing collaborative learning and teamwork, and achieving individual growth and development. .

On-site tutors need to find out which issues are particularly challenging for students and may affect their academic performance and success after graduation. Students bring in cultural, socio-political, and moral perspectives and concerns to their learning activities, and most of the time these factors are what inform their educational motivation. It can therefore be a great advantage for the tutor to know them on a deeply personal level. From there, tutors will be able to develop motivating learning activities which are particularly relevant to students’ personal and social development. Poverty is not the only issue to be addressed by students in a learning setting. Simply understanding community issues is also not enough. Liberal arts education enables refugee students to gain the tools to adapt to any socio-political and cultural challenge in whatever host country or community. If successful, they will be able to proactively and independently make decisions about what they need to make their lives better. It is important for refugees to achieve change in how they live and how host communities see them, which can ease tensions over resources and cultural differences.

The re-conceptualization of refugee life through higher education is closely based on the refugees’ social and cultural ability to live with different people. Refugee situations are different based on host countries and communities. The re-conceptualization of refugee life should shift more power to refugees to cope with cultural diversity, poverty, and a number of other social issues found within the refugee community itself. As refugee situations become more prolonged in nature, the popular conceptualization of ‘refugee’ needs to evolve. As the JC: HEM program expands beyond its 3-year pilot phase to include more sites such as Kenya, Jordan, and Myanmar, and other higher education distance learning programs emerge in refugee situations globally,[4] new knowledge is being created and capabilities are being supported in these long-term refugee camps.

A large gap remains between host and refugee communities in terms of access to work and social integration. One reason for this may be because host communities have not yet recognized that the majority of refugees in Malawi cannot return to their countries of origin and are therefore in protracted refugee situations. Limited freedom of movement and almost no possibility of employment in the host country can affect refugees’ rights to live as dignified human beings.

There are a number of emerging questions that need further attention to ensure higher education programs in refugee contexts are relevant to students’ life contexts and cultural backgrounds. How can these individuals effect change within their refugee and host communities and apply these valuable skills productively in the long term? What role will distance learning programs like JC: HEM have in changing constraining legal and political frameworks that limit self-reliance and livelihood possibilities for refugees? The implications of having increased numbers of highly educated refugees remaining contained in camps must be considered. Advocates for refugee education must push for refugees themselves to be at the centre of decision-making and community development.


Bronson, Amy. Gender and Recruitment in the Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins Diploma Course (Unpublished). Malawi: Jesuit Refugee Services, 2013.

Carlson, Sharon. Contesting and Reinforcing Patriarchy: An Analysis of Domestic Violence in Dzaleka Refugee Camp (RSC Working Paper No. 23). Oxford: University of Oxford, 2005.

Donald, Heather. Preparing for Uncertainty: Access to Higher Education for Refugees in Dzaleka Refugee camp, Malawi. Unpublished Master’s Thesis. Toronto: York University, 2014.


[1] UNHCR. UNHCR Operation in Malawi: Fact Sheet.” Malawi, 2013.

[3] A small number of students are also from neighboring communities in the host country of Malawi.

[4] See for example the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) Project, which offers tertiary education to refugees. The BHER project’s goals are three fold: “(1) improve the equitable delivery of quality education in refugee camps and adjacent local communities through university training opportunities which will prepare a new generation of male and female teachers; (2) create targeted, continuing opportunities for young men and women in university programs that will enhance their employability through portable certificates, diplomas and degrees; (3) build the capacity of Kenyan academic institutions that already offer onsite/on-line university degree programs to vulnerable and marginalized groups.” (For more, visit: ).