10 years of online higher education at the margins - a mission of the Jesuits

“The work-in-progress of the ‘Jesuit Commons,’[…], is extremely important, and it will require a more serious support and commitment from our universities if it is to succeed in its ambitious dream of promoting greater equality in access to knowledge for the sake of the development of persons and communities,” said Late Fr Adolfo Nicolás SJ (former Superior General of the Society of Jesus) as he addressed the gathering of Jesuit Universities in Mexico City on April 21, 2010. It was the beginning of Jesuit Commons Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM).

That day, Fr Mike Sheeran SJ, President of Regis University, Dr Mary McFarland, the first International Director of JC:HEM, late Fr Paul Locatelli SJ, Secretary for Higher Education, and myself as Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) International Director, signed the agreement to offer an online Diploma in Liberal Studies accredited by Regis University to refugees in Kakuma Refugee Camp (Kenya) and Dzaleka Refugee Camp (Malawi). The first academic students began their studies end of September 2010. JRS was JC:HEM’s  sole strategic partner during the  pilot period of the programme.

The pilot’s success was recognised during a 2012 conference held at Regis University, with the support and commitment of Jesuit Universities in the USA, and the decision was made to expand the programme to new regions and partners at the margins. A 2015 external evaluation by Jigsaw emphasised the value of Ignatian Pedagogy and critical-thinking engrained within the Liberal Studies programme’s curriculum.

In May 2016, JC:HEM’s Board supported the incoming Executive President (myself) in his request to adjust the name from JC:HEM to Jesuit Worldwide Learning – Higher Education at the Margins (JWL) and to establish JWL as an apostolic work of the future Central European Province of the Jesuits. JWL was founded as an International Association in Geneva, Switzerland, on 27 September 2016. The Founding Board includes members of the four Jesuit Provinces and is chaired by the Provincial of the Swiss Province as President.

JWL featured prominently at the meeting of Jesuit Universities in Bilbao (July 2018), with Fr General Arturo Sosa SJ mentioned the organisation in his speech while referring to one of the two challenges to universities – overcoming geographic and social boundaries within which universities operate:

We have been sent to those places that are not easy to reach, and which others have avoided. The university education provided by the Society of Jesus seeks to be open to all and has been particularly called upon to reach out to the marginalised or impoverished, to refugees and to those who have been displaced due to the unfair social relations that prevail in today’s world. The historical era of knowledge has given us the educational means to reach remote or socially marginalised locations.

These words and the Society’s four Apostolic Preferences (announced in 2019) strengthen JWL’s mission of providing higher education to youth in marginalised communities, to care for our common home and show people the way from self- to other-centredness.

Fr Peter Balleis SJ

Executive Vice-President, JWL

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