One year ago, Dr. Terry-Ann Jones, associate professor of sociology and anthropology, received an e-mail from Rev. Paul Fitzgerald, vice president of academic affairs at Fairfield, requesting that faculty consider teaching courses online, on a pro bono basis, to Burmese refugees in Thailand. The program was sponsored by the Australian Catholic University (ACU) Refugee Program on the Thai-Burma Border and offered Burmese refugee students the opportunity to pursue higher education.
Dr. Jones, who recently began her tenure as director of the International Studies program, immediately agreed to take part in the program, saying, “My research and some of my teaching revolves around international migration and work with refugees, so I took an immediate interest in the program.” She chose to integrate her new Burmese students with her Fairfield students through her “People, Places, and Global Issues” course.
The Burmese and American students were connected to each other through the online system Blackboard where they post assignments and engage in discussion based on questions that Dr. Jones would post. Although her American students were initially shy, Dr. Jones said that reading about the experiences of the Burmese students added another dimension to their learning.
“I would ask questions like, ‘what is the most important global issue to you right now?’ and they would talk about things like environmental degradation or military dictatorship in Burma, which they felt impacted them directly.” Hearing about the Burmese students’ first-hand experience had a direct affect on the Fairfield students because, as Dr. Jones noted, “It’s one thing to read about something in a textbook or learn it from me. It’s quite another thing to hear, ‘I escaped to this refugee camp.’”
The passion for and dedication to learning that the Burmese students demonstrated, in spite of the struggles they went through on a daily basis, was an inspiration to Dr. Jones. Aside from the daily complications of living in refugee camps, the students’ experienced many hiccups during the course such as delays in the arrival of textbooks, issues with the online system, an 11-hour time difference with Dr. Jones, and even a fire at the refugee camp. “Things like those made it a challenge well beyond anything I’ve experienced,” Dr. Jones explained.
Despite the challenges, all of the refugee students delivered quality papers on comparative governance in different countries. Most of the students take part in the program to complete a liberal arts degree through ACU and then hopefully gain scholarships to attend university programs in Thailand or in other countries.
Dr. Jones has no doubt that she’ll take part in the program again and hopes that the dialogue between the refugee students and her American students will continue to grow. “This is an incredible program and I’m really glad Fairfield is a part of this. I knew it would be a tremendous experience but just hearing the appreciation from the [refugee] students really drives home how important it is.”
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