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Higher education in protracted refugee situations: An impact assessment in Dzaleka, Malawi

Mon, March 26, 11:30am to 1:00pm, Hilton Reforma, Floor: 2nd Floor, Don Américo


Tertiary education is often viewed a luxury in what humanitarian aid organizations consider a temporary crisis. As more and more people are displaced globally, exploring ways to build community leadership and improve quality of life in the face of persistent uncertainty is fundamental to pushing the concept of humanitarian relief beyond physical needs. Accredited higher education programs can be of great-value when refugees are resettled, but realistically most graduates will not leave the camp for many years and will not have access to further their education and employment opportunities.

The research focuses on Jesuit Worldwide Learning (JWL), a non-profit organization that endeavors to bring quality higher education to communities on the margins of society. JWL started in 2010 as a pilot project in three locations: Amman (Jordan), Kakuma (Kenya), and Dzaleka (Malawi). JWL has continued to expand its educational programming and offers both a three-year diploma in Liberal Studies and Community Service Learning Tracks (CSLTs). CSLTs are often eight months in length and focus on building skills that can directly benefit the camp such as English language training, counseling, and community health.

Through a Diploma accredited by Regis University in Colorado, the program provides a liberal arts foundation, which can be built upon with other accredited programs. Students are given access to a stable Internet connection and computers in a central learning center in the camp. While the opportunity and infrastructure for learning is an important improvement, many students still face overwhelming obstacles to pursuing their education. Hunger, family responsibilities, and lack of transportation are among the most cited barriers to participation in the online diploma program. JWL addresses many of the physical hurdles that make education difficult in a refugee camp, but there are also significant challenges after the course of study is completed.

The research included a one-day workshop and a survey of 25 individuals who are currently enrolled in or have completed the diploma in Liberal Studies. Surveys consisted of open-ended questions allowing the participant to provide an inclusive picture of their education experience and resulted in a qualitative assessment. The survey questions were crafted to reveal how the interviewee’s life has been impacted by this course of study. During the workshop, participants were asked to identify Dzaleka’s “hierarchy of needs” by narrowing down what resources they feel are necessary for Dzlaeka residents to live respectable humane lives. This serves as a baseline survey of the participant’s access to resources in the camp. The interviews were transcribed and then analyzed for recurring themes using qualitative data analysis software.

Refugees are frequently restricted from legal employment opportunities both within and outside of camps, which makes measuring the program’s economic impact on quality of life nearly impossible. Donors of humanitarian aid often look for measurable quantitative results to determine where their money will be of greatest use. This research will provide data to validate the program’s past successes and strengths while also looking for areas of growth. The result will also provide donors with a more holistic and complete picture of the outcomes of liberal arts education in a refugee camp context. The panelist believes outcomes of this study can be useful to other individuals and organizations looking to implement higher education as a tool for development in protracted refugee situations.

Evaluating the impact of the curriculum on past cohorts will allow alumni to help shape and steer the program for current students. The one on one survey created opportunities for alumni to share their personal stories and reflect on how the diploma program affected them personally and how it has influenced the way they participate in the large camp community. Amplifying the voices of refugees is critical in ensuring valuable programming continues to be funded and prioritized.


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