Refugee university gives students a chance
10 February 2009: A bamboo hut in the mountains of Thailand wasn't the university classroom that Professors Tom and Mary McFarland were used to. However it was one they learnt to value after spending two months teaching students as part of Australian Catholic University’s (ACU National) joint Refugee Project.
The 21 students studying for a Diploma in Liberal Studies were selected from two of the many camps dotting the Thai-Burma border – where more than 600,000 refugees have lived in exile since 1984.
Previous students taking part in the Project have graduated in business and theology.
Professor Mary McFarland – Dean of Professional Studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington State, and her husband Tom, Emeritus Professor of Education, were the first participants from four US Jesuit Universities who have become partners with ACU National in the Project.
"We were told about these bright young people who were literally watching their lives go by," Mary said. "That is my personal idea of hell – knowing you have the energy and the intellect and having to watch life pass you by. So Tom and I started thinking about how we could contribute."
Using donated computers and equipment, and with roosters running through the makeshift classroom, the couple taught the internationally recognised course six days a week.
"Many of these students came from very remote areas and hadn't used computers before – they were just amazed at what you could do," Mary said. "Every day was an adventure – the sounds, the smells, the noises – the students taught us so much about themselves, their lives and Burma.
"I hope that at the end of the day these students will have a different identity and perspective thanks to their education – and will continue to choose the path to peace."
The certificate will also give students the chance to continue on in higher education – such as one refugee who was resettled in Australia and is now studying at ACU National's Melbourne campus.
ACU National lecturer Ellen McBarron arrived in Thailand last month to continue tutoring the class, and Tom and Mary will continue teaching their own subjects using skype and email.
"We have so many unbelievable blessings - to make one small difference to people who have lost almost everything is incredible," Mary said. "Education is a gift that changes lives."
Coordinator of the Project, Duncan MacLaren, said now that ACU National had demonstrated it was possible to deliver high-quality tertiary education to refugees in Thailand, the task was to expand to other parts of the world.
"This is exactly the kind of project a Catholic university, geared towards the common good, should be doing," he said.
The Refugee Project grew from Reverend Dr Michael Smith's Refugee Tertiary Education Committee (RTEC), and has been developed by ACU National and supporters.
For more information, or ways to contribute to the Refugee Project, please email Duncan MacLaren at Duncan.firstname.lastname@example.org