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Jordan: rethinking the traditional university model
July 31, 2012

Jordan: rethinking the traditional university model
Eager to learn, the new third level students get to know about each other, their aspirations and the new program at the introductory session for Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins in Amman, Jordan. (Zerene Haddad — Jesuit Refugee Service)
Basil was asked if he could handle reading in English for a minimum of six hours a day. "I'm currently reading Macbeth in English, so I'm already reading five hours a day," he quipped with a wry smile.

(Amman) July 31, 2012 — As technology contributes to the rapid change taking place in the Arab world, Jesuit Refugee Service is looking for ways to use technology to help rebuild communities — both literally and virtually.

Working in cooperation with Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM), JRS has initiated an online Liberal Studies Diploma for urban refugees in Amman, Jordan.

To date, higher education remains an unmet need for refugees mainly because it does not fall into the 'emergency assistance' category. Higher education also requires a more sustainable, long-term commitment from service providers, and with refugee communities constantly on the move, there is always the prospect of losing students who are resettled in developed countries.

A new strategy. After a rigorous application process in which 70 young people — Iraqis, Jordanians, Palestinians, Somalis and Syrians — contended for a much coveted place in the third level course, the first groups of 19 students were finally selected in early June 2012.

Living throughout Amman, these students will come together several times a week at their 'physical campus,' the Greek Catholic primary school in Ashrafiyeh, a working class neighborhood in the east of the Jordanian capital. Yet, they will share an online ‘virtual campus' with refugees living in Kenya and Malawi, and professors from Jesuit universities on two continents.

In addition to being an ethnically and religiously diverse class, the students — former prisoners of war, survivors of terminal illnesses, pregnant mothers, young adults, and civil engineers — bring a wealth of life experiences which at times surpass the value of academic knowledge.

The value of their cultural and personal experiences significantly adds to the classroom dynamics, further enriching the academic environment.

Of equal importance is that this diploma course is as much a learning experience for the students as it is for the JC:HEM professors from Jesuit universities in Australia and the United States, and in the future possibly from Cote d'Ivoire, Colombia, India and Kenya.

The curriculum also allows for cultural pertinence, according to the JC:HEM International Director Mary McFarland. 

"We're on a journey towards a global curriculum informed by the experiences of our students, faculty professors and the onsite teams. So regardless of where we live, it's really looking towards how to create a curriculum in which anybody in the world would want to take, because it's informed by many cultures and viewpoints."

The importance of higher education. In order to ensure the students are ready to begin their first year of study in late August, they are currently undertaking an intensive summer course focusing on developing their writing skills and preparing them for the academic environment.

During their first writing-skills class, students shared their reasons for wanting to take a diploma in liberal studies. Despite the challenges they have encountered since fleeing violence in their home countries, the classroom was imbued with a spirit of optimism.

"Education is the only way to improve myself, my community, and my country," said Najah, a young Somali woman.

Their excitement for the opportunity to engage in critical thinking, ponder big ideas, and develop skills that enable them to become active participants in the modern global community is palpable. Mohammed recently completed his high school education in Homs, Syria, and arrived in Jordan six months ago.

"I had wanted to study at the university in Syria but couldn't. I'm happy for the chance to go to university here in Jordan," he said.

JC:HEM seeks to create a space for students to explore humanities and social sciences. The courses offered range from philosophy to psychology, with the option of a business component in their third year of study.

As well as hailing from different backgrounds, the students also span a wide age-range. Mohammed from Syria is the youngest, at 18, while Basil from Iraq is 66.

In his interview, Basil was asked if he could handle reading in English for a minimum of six hours a day.

"I'm currently reading Macbeth in English, so I'm already reading five hours a day," he quipped with a wry smile.

Access to education. This is the first time JC:HEM is offering the diploma in an urban area, as opposed to a camp, and it is the first time online higher education is being made freely available to refugees in Jordan. 

Although Iraqi refugees in Jordan have access to public schools for primary and secondary education, they are considered foreigners when it comes to higher education and are required to have to pay non-national fees to enroll. Negotiations to allow Syrian children free access to public schools for the 2012 - 2013 academic year are currently on-going. However, the Sudanese and Somali populations are two of the most vulnerable refugee populations in Jordan with very few NGOs providing services for them.

With many social changes developing in the Middle East and North Africa, a protracted Iraqi refugee situation, and thousands fleeing Syria, there is a prevalent need for honing critical thought on how communities and nations can be rebuilt. JC:HEM and JRS are hopeful to contribute, if even only slightly, in this work.

by Zerene Haddad, JRS Middle East and North Africa Communications Officer

Earlier: UNHCR: refugees need opportunities for higher education
and Higher Education at the Margins charts future course

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