Education leaders and innovators from 30 countries gathered at Regis University in Denver for a four-day conference designed to re-envision a program that provides online higher education for refugees living in camps around Africa.

"It's a collaboration across many universities worldwide with a common mission; and that is to serve others who live at the margins," said Steve Jacobs, conference chair and assistant vice president for academic affairs at Regis.

The term "margins" in this case refers to three refugee camps in Kenya, Malawi, and Syria. During the two year pilot program, faculty at Regis — and other Jesuit universities — have provided curricular, instruction, and technology support on a volunteer basis.

"That's one of the strengths of the Jesuit network," Jacobs said. "We are motivated by many of the same value sets."

The overarching Jesuit mission states "ours must be a dialogue, born of respect for people, especially the poor, in which we appreciate and share the values of their culture and offer our own treasures."

"This program is very much in line with the Jesuit values," Jacobs said.

Three primary goals guided the conference agenda this week: sustainability, transferability and scalability.

"How do we get more university commitment, how do we increase this program for refugees in a smart way that we don't burn out, and thirdly, what is the curriculum that the refugees actually need," Jacobs said.

This thoughtful process and program has now gained attention from the United Nations. Vincent Cochetel is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' Regional Representative for the United States and the Caribbean, was the conference's keynote speaker on Wednesday.

"This Jesuit program is unique in that it focuses on higher education," Cochetel said. "All the graduates are finding work or giving back to their community."

Cochetel said the average refugee lives in a camp for 17 years.

He said it takes much more than the basic necessities to stabilize a region. "If we keep generations of people in camps without education we will have to deal with bigger problems in the long run."

The UN is interested in partnership because it engages the refugees' voices and lets them decide what they need educationally.

"It's a very concrete project," Cochetel said. "It's turning conversation into action and that's what we like about the project."

Apart from the logistics of expansion and sustainability, the conference posed large, theoretic questions as well.

"How do you define people at the margins?" Jacobs said. "We have this increasing divide between the rich and the poor. How can we share what we have? It's a great question."

Kristen Leigh Painter: 303-954-1638 or kpainter@denverpost.com