Transforming Lives at the Margins


Mary McFarland is the founding director of Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM). Under her leadership, the organization has developed a model for higher education tailored to populations around the world unserved and underserved by mainstream higher education. In the process, she has learned not only to construct innovative solutions from scratch but also to raise her voice on behalf of women affected by violence and challenge others to follow her example.

Education at the Margins

A Somali student participates in an online class at the JC:HEM center at the Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi. (Photo via JRS, Giulio D’Ercole)

A Somali student participates in an online class at the JC:HEM center at the Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi. (Photo via JRS, Giulio D’Ercole)

JC:HEM offers an online-based Diploma in Liberal Studies accredited through the Regis University in the United States. Simultaneously, JC:HEM has developed a range of so-called Community Service Learning Tracks (CSLTs) which are delivered onsite and prepare students to respond to a range of locally identified needs.

In 2010, the initial 3-year pilot project focused on refugees and in partnership with the Jesuit Refugee Service developed online and onsite higher education programs in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi and for urban refugees in Aleppo, Syria.

Today, JC:HEM can boast over 3000 graduates and is active in 10 locations around the world. Along with refugees, it also serves rural and indigenous populations, and, most recently, residents of an inner city neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York.

Building a model from scratch

Mary McFarland remembers that the idea to offer online education globally was inspired by her experience with online education at the Gonzaga University (Spokane, USA) where she served as a Dean of the School of Professional Studies. The new possibilities offered by rapid spread of internet technologies came together with the realization that online education has the capacity to bring together in transformative ways people of diverse backgrounds. But the deciding impulse for the project was McFarland’s stay in a refugee camp at the Thai-Burma border and the hunger for education demonstrated by the people she encountered there.

Tapping into Jesuit networks – including Jesuit universities in the United States and the Jesuit Refugee Service working globally with displaced populations – the pilot program was supported by a private foundation.

McFarland reflects: “We had to learn how to create a model; a model for the margins that would be sustainable, scaleable and transferable.” The many questions included not just the availability of suitable technical solutions for internet connectivity or power supply in remote regions, but also questions of sustaining a current curriculum that offered content that was transferable across a variety of contexts.

McFarland discovered that this was a collective process. “Listening, listening, listening to very diverse groups of people and moving the puzzle pieces around, asking ourselves how would that work” was the process that shaped the model. “We also had to learn what we can say yes to and what we say no to” so that the vision could be expanded in ways unforeseen at the beginning and yet stay true to the core values.

The four cornerstones of the JC:HEM model

Under the vision “Transform thinking, transform the world,” the JC:HEM model rests on four cornerstones: Global thinking, Strategic Partnerships, Ignatian Experience, and Highest Quality: Leveraged Costs.

Global Thinking
In contrast to other online higher education models focused on refugee populations, JC:HEM brings in each “classroom” together 10-15 students from all its sites to support a truly global learning environment. The curriculum is also designed as “open windows, open doors” so that all students are working towards the same outcomes but can reach them using a variety of culturally appropriate readings and assignments.

Strategic Partnerships
JC:HEM relies on strategic partnerships to complement its expertise with the strengths that partners bring to the table. Partners help to tailor JC:HEM to local needs and facilitate contact with students. they also deliver the onsite CSLT courses and manage facilities. Crucially, local partners enable JC:HEM students to put into action what they have learned.

Ignatian Experience

JC:HEM student conducts classes for children at the Dzaleka refugee camp, motivating others to follow her example and strive for higher education.

JC:HEM student conducts classes for children at the Dzaleka refugee camp, motivating others to follow her example and strive for higher education.

The Ignatian Experience cornerstone draws on a model developed by Ignatius of Loyola 450 years ago as he founded the Jesuits, a Catholic religious order. Just as Ignatius, JC:HEM believes in “going to the people” and starting from the experience of its students, rather than expecting that students will fit into a pre-fabricated model. JC:HEM seeks to transform its students into “men and women for others” so that their learning leads to reflection of their living situation and action for the benefit of the whole community.

McFarland points out that JC:HEM partners must not be necessarily Jesuit organizations. The important thing is that the organizations are “mission-centric.” McFarland finds that such resonance can be found with UN agencies, secular donors or public universities. At the same time, McFarland points out that in order to stays true to its cornerstones, JC:HEM has declined partnerships and funders who did not resonate with its mission-centric approach.

Highest Quality: Leveraged Cost
The Highest Quality: Leveraged Cost means that JC:HEM always reflects on how to best use resources and, in McFarland’s words, JC:HEM does “not expend a lot of money on bureaucracy or on things that partners are better at.” For example, JC:HEM has leveraged the expertise of Regis University to avoid the lengthy and expensive higher education accreditation process and thus saved between $50,000 – 100,000.

Education for Peace

Mary McFarland participates in a brainstorming session with JC:HEM students in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

Mary McFarland participates in a brainstorming session with JC:HEM students in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

McFarland insists that JC:HEM’s motto “transform thinking, transform the world” applies not only to the students but also to professors, staff, and, of course, to herself. She notes that after numerous visits and conversations, her attitude towards the project has changed. She recounts meeting a Darfurian elder in a refugee camp in Chad who told her: “If we had education in Darfur, we would not be refugees today. But they caught us unaware.”

McFarland says that she wonders now much more about the power of education to prevent conflict and support holistic human development. She sees the horizon of education as a transformative tool in the service of peace and development, not just as a professional preparation.

Collaboration, not competition

McFarland remembers that an important outcome of her meetings with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was starting a collaborative group together with other providers of higher education, an effort which has just recently resulted in a founding of a Geneva-based consortium. McFarland laughs as she recalls the surprised questions she sometimes gets about why she wants to collaborate with her “competitors” in the field of higher education. “When we are at 99% of people at the margins getting access to higher education, then maybe we are competitors” she chuckles, “but with 1%, the need is to learn from each other, connect, not be redundant and spread the access,” explain McFarland alluding to the official UNHCR statistic that no more than 1% of refugees currently have access to higher education.

Empowering women

A young Afghani woman shares her dream of attending a university and becoming a doctor. (Photo via JRS, Bashir A. Behzad)

A young Afghani woman shares her dream of attending a university and becoming a doctor. (Photo via JRS, Bashir A. Behzad)

Another area that has deeply impacted McFarland are the stories that she has heard from women around the world. In view of the unequal access to education for men and women in many regions of the world, JC:HEM has set the target of at least 30% of students being women.
McFarland shares that she approaches this issue with the mindset of “respecting but not accepting” the cultural perspectives that prevent women and girls from accessing education. JC:HEM looks for approaches to build up the confidence of women, for example by offering women-only community learning tracks.

In Afghanistan, JC:HEM in partnership with JRS offers a residential programs for women, decreasing the insecurity connected with commute in a country that has a long history of violence targeted at women accessing education. With this intervention, Afghanistan has become a country with the highest representation of women in the JC:HEM programs although otherwise it ranks as the second worst country in the world for parity between men and women accessing higher education (Source: UNESCO eAtlas on Education).

Speaking up against violence

Mary McFarland speaks at a press conference.

Mary McFarland speaks at a press conference.

McFarland says that she has been deeply touched and shocked as she realized that women in conflict routinely experience sexual violence in a way that makes it a tactic of war aimed at demoralizing whole families and communities. The stories that she has come to know through the women engaged in JC:HEM have prompted her to reach a personal decision to speak up.

“It is not a comfortable topic but I have decided that at every talk I do, I raise the issue” explains McFarland how she is using her many speaking engagements for Catholic audiences. “My prayer and hope is that every priest will use their network, their parish, their talks to condemn atrocities and quit keeping them silent.”

McFarland cites the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is predominantly Catholic and at the same time overwhelmingly plagued by sexual violence against women in the context of the decades-long conflict there. “Where is the Church?” McFarland wonders and expresses the hope that following the example of Pope Francis, others will find the courage to raise their voices and achieve real change by using the power that priests, religious sisters and lay people have as leaders of the Catholic Church.

Serving as a visible example

When asked whether she thought that it made a difference that JC:HEM was headed by a woman, McFarland responded: “It is essential, not because of me personally but because having women in leadership roles encourages other women to keep coming to school.” According to McFarland, meeting women leaders also gives men in cultures where men and women normally do not work together the permission to collaborate with a woman and test this new territory. For the same reasons, McFarland believes that it is important for JC:HEM to have a substantial proportion of women on its Board of Directors. “More then just speaking about women in leadership,” she concludes, “ it matters seeing women who are heads of organizations and see that women leadership can work.”

Facts and Figures about Higher Education at the margins

The areas scoring most poorly on the UNDP Human Development Index coincide with areas with least access to higher education.




Democratic Republic of Congo



Human Development of Index Ranking 2015

185 of 188

176 of 188

171 of 188

United Nations Development Program

Parity in access to Higher Education for men and women

193 of 193

182 of 193

192 of 193

UNESCO eAtlas for education