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Seattle University


Going Where the Need is Greatest

Written by Mike Thee
August 15, 2011

You could call it an old-school way of Skyping.  

There she was, Janet Quillian, director of the International Development Internship Program, sitting at her desk on SU’s campus, glancing periodically at a picture of students in a refugee camp in Malawi, while she typed away. Quillian was creating modules for a course on community health for the students in the picture. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away at the camp, those students in the photo were gathering to take the course while a picture of the SU professor hung on their classroom wall.  

Going where the need is greatest 

The coursework Quillian wrote is part of Higher Education at the Margins, the central component of the Jesuit Commons. The initiative was launched last fall to connect the expertise of faculty from Jesuit schools in the U.S. with students in refugee camps who covet a college education.  

This past year, participating faculty began offering courses through distance-learning at two camps—Kakuma in Kenya, where 84,000 refugees are living, and Dzaleka, the Malawi camp of 14,000 refugees where Quillian’s course was taught. Plans are also underway to establish the program for urban refugees in Aleppo, Syria. The idea is to empower refugees so they might lead in their communities and succeed, whether they remain in the camps or eventually leave. 

Considering that commonly invoked Jesuit motto to “go where the need is greatest,” one would be hard-pressed to find a more marginalized, dispossessed people than those living in refugee camps. When Quillian speaks of Higher Education at the Margins, she says, “This is very Jesuit.” It also fits perfectly with SU’s ever-expanding and deepening international efforts, which are being spearheaded by Victoria Jones, associate provost for global engagement.  

“I’ll do it.”  

Quillian’s involvement with the Higher Education at the Margins program began with a phone call from Mary McFarland, international director of the Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins and professor at

Students in the Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi put into practice some of the lessons they learned about safe drinking water from the coursework Janet Quillian created. 

Gonzaga University. McFarland was looking for someone to create a course on community health for the Malawi camp. Being familiar with Quillian’s extensive work in refugee camps, McFarland asked Quillian if there was anyone at SU she’d recommend. “I’ll do it,” Quillian promptly answered. 


And with t hat, Quillian became the first SU faculty member and one of the first faculty members of all the Jesuit institutions in the country to get involved with Higher Education at the Margins. So far, 18 faculty members and eight schools have participated in the delivery of coursework for the program. Another 40 faculty from 13 Jesui t institutions have been part of the admissions process, volunteering to read applications. 

On her own time, Quillian devoted a series of weekends to the project, creating nine modules for a course called “Community Health Providers.” The objective was to prepare students to take the lead in addressing the health needs of people living in the refugee camp. And there are many, ranging from malaria to domestic violence to alcohol abuse to mental health. 

Sixteen students took the course—10 from DRC (Congo), two from Rwanda, two from Malawi and two from Burundi. They met 15 weeks for 150 hours. The coursework was delivered by an onsite facilitator, Jean Claude Bashibirira, who himself is a refugee. His background in nursing and excellent teaching skills made for a smooth collaboration with Quillian.  

McFarland speaks glowingly of Quillian’s work. “It was so wonderful of Janet to share her incredible insight and wisdom from her extensive work with refugees,” she says, adding that the Jesuit Commons is looking to increase the number of faculty who participate in the program. “It would be a godsend if faculty were willing to volunteer to teach courses in which their particular content expertise is needed.”

An Invitation  

Are you interested in designing and/or teaching a course to refugee students through the Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM) program?  

The program is particularly in need of experts in the following content areas: (1) business, specifically entrepreneurship; (2) communication and journalism; (3) English as a Second Language; and (4) incorporating technology in the design of curriculum. 

If you would like to get involved, please contact Mary McFarland, international director of JC:HEM, at and phone: (509) 313-6447.  

 A need that swells 

Higher Education at the Margins is eliciting a seemingly insatiable desire for education at the refugee camps. The program is actually two-pronged. There’s a 45-credit program taught over three years, through which graduates receive a diploma from Regis University. More than 300 refugees applied for a combined 65 spaces at both African camps for the first year. Given this enormous demand, a second component of coursework was added. These are called Community Service Learning Tracts and include classes such as the one Quillian designed. The tracts provide training that refugees can use to improve the quality of life in their camps. 

One sign of the high priority being placed upon the Jesuit Commons is the firepower being brought bear on the initiative. The organization’s board includes Peter Balleis, S.J., international director of Jesuit Refugee Service, and its president is Christopher Lowney, the Jesuit-turned-business executive who went on to write the highly acclaimed book, Heroic Leadership, in which he explored how the lessons from the Jesuits can be applied to the business world.  

Even as McFarland encourages more faculty to assist in the effort, she just as quickly acknowledges that “it asks a lot of faculty with already full plates.” And yet, “Without fail,” she adds, “the faculty who participate talk about how meaningful the experience is. The exchange with students gives them a new cultural context and a richness of ideas.” Many participating professors, she says, actually change the content of the courses they deliver at their home institutions based on their experience with the refugee camps. 

In speaking with Quillian, it is clear she found the experience tremendously fulfilling. Physically separated as she was from her students in Malawi, an undeniable bond was formed. In addition to their group picture, the students also sent her their bios and even poetry. “Knowing the Community Health Care Project was making a personal difference in the life of the students and would eventually improve the health outcomes of the Dzaleka Refugee Community made me happy to be involved but also brought home again the importance of basic education in changing people's lives,” she says. 

For more information, visit Jesuit Commons.