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After Opus nomination, JWL becomes classroom for Creighton students

Refugees in the Dzaleka refugee camp during a JWL course.This past November, as Creighton University readied to host the Opus Prize, the world’s largest faith-based humanitarian award, one of the three finalists for the $1 million award was already a quiet presence on the campus.

Jesuit Worldwide Learning, formerly Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins, has a history at the University dating back to 2010. This spring semester with the help of a Creighton Global Initiative grant, Creighton students and faculty took participation with JWL — which provides access to higher education to refugees around the globe — to a new level as students both took online courses with the refugees in the program and served as teaching assistants in those courses.

“It was a great opportunity to interact with other people in other parts of the world and get some different perspectives,” said Hannah Pulverenti, a junior from Omaha who took part in a world religions course through JWL. “Not everyone in higher education is a 20-year-old college student. There were people of all ages, people from different parts of Africa, from Afghanistan, from Syria and Jordan. It was an interesting perspective on a program providing students with tools they might not otherwise have.”

Creighton student participation in JWL was part of a pilot program within the organization. Students enrolled in a one-hour course taught by Martha Habash, PhD, associate professor and chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies who serves as Creighton’s JWL liaison. Alongside the Creighton course, students also took an eight-week, three-hour JWL course with fellow students logged on from Malawi, Iraq, Afghanistan and Jordan. The students turned around and spent the next eight weeks working as TAs in the courses they had just navigated, writing and responding to what they witnessed as part of their one-hour course with Habash.

JWL, as defined by the organization’s leader, Rev. Peter Balleis, SJ, is meant to provide refugees not merely with the material skills for bettering their lives, but with the educational tools necessary to improve life for all both in their present circumstances in a camp, and in the event they should return to their home nation.

“If you don’t train people to form a different society, if you don’t challenge them to look for other answers, down the road, you repeat the cycles of war, instability, poverty,” Fr. Balleis said.

In a poignant illustration, Fr. Balleis likes to overlay a map of world conflict with one showing education levels. The loci of conflict match evenly with the lowest levels of educational attainment.

“We learned a lot about what makes a refugee really dependent on a number of outside factors,” said Paul Romero, a junior from Omaha who worked alongside refugees in a course on political thought. “In JWL, a refugee is more than just a dependent in a camp. They are all potential political actors and because of the diversity of the people taking the course, they were all learning different approaches. The question, all along is, ‘With all that’s broken, how do you want to fix it?’”

Toward that end, Romero found the course he took part in to be particularly prescient given the disposition of his international classmates, relative to his life. To talk about feminist theory, regimes, uses of power, the social contract and individual freedoms, the course examined the three-decade conflict in Ireland known as The Troubles.

“It was an ethnic and a religious upheaval and we discussed it within the context of where they had seen similar conflicts occurring in their home countries,” Romero said. “For me, there was a lesson in the privilege I have as an American to not have suffered through major upheavals and tragic losses of friends and family. To hear about what they had endured and to see that they still had the motivation to be in a class and learn was an eye-opener. There was a punch in the gut every once in a while.”

With discussion boards, papers and a set of projects that could include artistic and literary means of driving home points, the JWL courses opened Pulverenti and Romero up to a new and sometimes harrowing world.

“There were times when I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t have time to do that assignment,’” Pulverenti said. “And then I’d remember that some of my classmates are worried about where they’re going to live or what they’re going to eat or why they haven’t heard from their family. It really did put into perspective the Jesuit values we try to learn and live by at Creighton. It made me more thankful and intentional about my education and what I want to do with it.”

Prior to this program involving students, Creighton faculty had been tapped by JWL to teach various courses in the curriculum. During the 2013-14 academic year, Creighton offered two courses. In 2015-16, that number went to 11 courses. Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, is also a member of the JWL USA Board.

Before opening the course offerings, Creighton faculty, since 2010, have reviewed essays and administered interviews from applicants to JWL’s program. Nearly 100,000 people have applied for the diploma program, which can offer only a few dozen spots each year. For those who aren’t in the diploma program, JWL is still providing access to higher education courses to more than 140,000 refugees.

“We get the cream of the crop, mostly people who are already actively engaged in the refugee community and in thinking about ways to change things back home,” Habash said. “People might think, given the daily lives of refugees trying to scratch by, ‘Why bother?’ But the truth is that this is building a foundation to help them improve life in the refugee camp and ultimately return home to rebuild and impart the lessons we hope they’ve taken from the courses.”


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