Uniting for a cause: partnership provides promise of education for refugees in Salt Lake City


The University of Utah, in partnership with Salt Lake Community College and Jesuit Worldwide Learning, is working hard to make it feasible for refugees to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work.

Jesuit Worldwide Learning Higher Education at the Margins (JWL) is a collaborative global partnership that provides an education to those who are marginalized, including refugees, internally displaced people, economically poor, and socially neglected and underserved.

JWL, whose global headquarters is in Geneva, constructs online and in-person learning centers around the world. It offers three levels of educational opportunities, including the Academic or Diploma Program. The online infrastructure allows those in remote villages or in refugee camps, without locally operated schools, to gain an education.

Once a refugee finishes with the programs provided by JWL, the student can begin taking online classes from Salt Lake Community College. Students who complete their last 15 credit hours with SLCC can earn an associate degree. The college has agreed to charge refugees in-state tuition.

Once an associate degree is earned, the University of Utah hopes to take over from there.

Laying the groundwork

Patrick Panos, a professor of social work and director of Global Education and Outreach at the U, is the driving force behind the effort to provide refugees with a chance to earn a bachelor’s degree and become leaders in their respective communities.

“Without an education, all you have is your physical labor to sell. And if all you have is your physical labor, that is a time-limited commodity,” he says.

JWL laid most of the groundwork for SLCC and the U by setting up a structure for education in distant war-torn areas that the colleges wouldn’t dare enter. Panos says he is grateful for the organization’s work.

“They’re going to places where we could not physically go. The University of Utah is not going to go open up a school in Afghanistan. But [the U] can have students in Afghanistan through this process,” he says.

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Refugees take pride in their education from the University of Utah. Photo courtesy of Karen Cordova.

Francis P. Xavier, vice president for academics and research for JWL, said in an email interview that the organization currently has learning centers in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. He hopes JWL will become more global in the future.

A trial run proved the functionality of the distance-learning program and the feasibility of providing online classes with little cost to the student. The classes at the U will be offered to student refugees who qualify. That group will become known as a closed cohort, and pay nominal tuition to the College of Social Work rather than to the university as a whole. This is significant because the college will cover the cost of classes so the refugee students don’t have to. “I can charge them a dollar a class, and that‘s OK. And the university is OK with that,” Panos says.

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Graduates of the University of Utah’s Case Management Certificate Program in 2015. Photo courtesy of Karen Cordova.

Technology as a learning tool

Distance learning challenges historical notions of how a university operates. Traditionally, students come to campus, where they have access to amenities such as tutoring centers and the library. But an online delivery of course content makes it possible for refugees and others in marginalized communities to pursue educational opportunities.

The classes at the U will operate through Canvas, an online learning platform that connects professors and students in real time. A library database can be accessed with a student ID, so refugee students are able to access scholarly articles at their fingertips.

Kyle Jensen, director of Canvas user interface, said in an email interview that Canvas is special in terms of communication.

“Canvas, at its core, is a communication tool. As such, we aim to encourage high quality, meaningful interaction opportunities between educators and students. We also spend a lot of time and resources ensuring that Canvas works for everyone.”

Collaboration leads to reciprocal learning

Students within the Canvas classroom have much to gain from this collaboration and cultural exchange, both of which are crucial to the nature of social work. This relationship is valuable, as it allows traditional students to gain other perspectives before entering their profession.

Regarding the distance learners, Panos said, “If you want to have your students have a high impact upon graduation, these are them. They are changing the world. Educate a refugee — change the world.”

Panos pointed out that refugees who are trained in social work are then able to use this knowledge to work within their respective communities to improve the lives of the people living in the camps.

“Social workers learn how to advocate, how to do community development, how to do all of the things about how to reconstitute a community — and bring mental health in, child welfare in, and all those different pieces,” Panos says.

Refugee students speak in the native dialect of fellow asylum seekers, and have intimate knowledge of what is needed in the places where they work. Because of this insight, graduates of the College of Social Work can later seek employment with International relief efforts such as Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations.

Panos has high hopes for the future of the program. He’d like to see it expand beyond the College of Social Work, so students can earn other degrees in fields such as nursing, architecture and education. Panos also said his wish is for more refugees to have access to higher education, made possible by a collaboration of efforts from universities and programs in the U.S.

Xavier, the JWL executive, said his organization currently offers a diploma and some associate degrees. It wants to offer bachelors and master’s degrees and eventually doctoral degrees.

“I look forward [to] JWL becoming a virtual university which offers degrees of high quality for the refugees and the marginalized at affordable cost,” Xavier says.









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