Students completing schoolwork in Bangladesh, 2014.

Research for the Common Good: Ten Years of the Education and Social Justice Project

By: Henry Brill

January 30, 2020

The Education and Social Justice Project (ESJ) provides Georgetown undergraduates summer research fellowships to explore issues at the intersection of education and society in collaboration with partners across the international Jesuit network. Now celebrating its tenth year, ESJ has enabled 38 talented Georgetown students to enrich their education through original research and impactful global experiences.

The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching, and Service (CSJ) founded the Education and Social Justice Project in 2010 to fill a knowledge gap. Most research on efforts to alleviate poverty through education pays little attention to the innovative efforts of local religious organizations. Over the past decade, ESJ fellows working with faculty mentors have sought to fill that knowledge gap through interview-based research hosted primarily by Jesuit and Catholic institutions in the Global South.

ESJ fieldwork, although conducted abroad, exemplifies central pillars of undergraduate life on the Hilltop. “The Education and Social Justice Project is a unique opportunity for students to enrich their education through on-the-ground encounters with innovative anti-poverty efforts around the world,” says Thomas Banchoff, vice president for global engagement at the university. 

Since 2010, ESJ fellows have traveled to almost 40 countries across six continents and conducted a total of 376 interviews. The program has built connections between Georgetown and the wider global Jesuit network and helped to cultivate a generation of activists, scholars, and thought leaders working for social justice around the world.

Education and Engaged Scholarship

Through the ESJ Project, Georgetown undergraduate students have studied a wide variety of institutions—including universities, primary schools, and health education initiatives—quite literally from Cambodia to Canada, Peru to Poland. No two experiences in the field look exactly alike, even for members of the same cohort. Take, for instance, 2019, when the program sponsored three fellows who each researched a different site: a secondary school in Malawi, a college in rural Thailand, and an urban university in Ireland.

What unites the individual research projects on such a range of organizations around the world is the unique focus of the ESJ Project, which was developed to produce knowledge that local communities could use to improve their programs. “We center the community partner’s questions as the focal point of the research,” says Andria Wisler, executive director of CSJ. “The students really offer their space, time, and energy—their eyes and their ears—to the community partners.”

Fellows spend three to four weeks in the field developing relationships and building trust with community members. Much of the fieldwork involves one-on-one interviews with organizers of and participants in programs that foster equity through education. These semi-structured interviews play a key role in shaping outcomes of the research. “My research didn’t really have a head or tail until I went to Amman and started my interviews,” remembers Jonathan Thrall (SFS’17), who studied the Higher Education Center at the Jesuit Refugee Service in Jordan during summer 2016. “Ultimately, it was my interviews with students and staff—the members of that community—that really gave the research shape and direction.”

Jonathan Thrall in Amman Jordan, 2016.

Jonathan Thrall

Class: School of Foreign Service, 2017

Major: Culture and Politics

ESJ Location: Amman, Jordan

Community Partner: Jesuit Refugee Service

How did ESJ impact you? "The ESJ Project was without a doubt an experience of personal growth, challenge, and perspective-building. It was a very central experience in my undergraduate education.”

The interviews serve as a space for community partners to reflect on the challenges and possibilities of running their programs. Fellows spend a majority of their time in the field listening to and asking questions of community members, applying techniques learned in the ESJ springtime research methods course. “It was really a practice of developing human connections, asking: What is needed? What are the challenges? How can other people help?” recalls Adam Barton (C’16), who studied Pastoral da Criança, a community health organization in Brazil, during summer 2014.

Mackenzie Price at Trinity College Dublin, 2019.
Mackenzie Price at Trinity College Dublin, 2019.

By listening to the concerns of community partners, fellows provide the chance for often-overlooked voices to engage in critical reflection. “Something that was really rewarding was giving people a space to talk,” said Mackenzie Price (C’20), who studied Catholic and Protestant identity at Trinity College Dublin during summer 2019. “A lot of my informants felt they weren’t heard properly, especially people of Christian and Catholic faith who weren’t involved in any large religious organizations.”

As observers trained in interview-based research methods, fellows bring a rather unique ability to identify strengths and weaknesses in community programming. “I think our Georgetown students can see things that maybe someone living and working in that space cannot see because they are so mired in the work,” says Wisler. “I know that for myself, directing a center here.”

Nicolas Lake (SFS'16) with members of his host community in Guatemala, 2015.
Nicolas Lake (SFS'16) with members of his host community in Guatemala, 2015.

It is only with the support and trust of host communities—who generously give access to their personnel, resources, and time—that fellows are able to highlight innovations in local programming. That was exactly what Brittany Fried (SFS’19) experienced during her time in Lusaka, Zambia, where she researched the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) during summer 2018. “From the day I arrived, the community welcomed me with open arms,” remembers Fried. “I was allowed into all staff meetings and was given full access to their resources. I landed on a Friday night, and on Tuesday morning, they had me alone on a bus traveling across the country to meet other members of the organization.”

Brittany Fried with two staff members from JCTR in Lusaka, Zambia, 2018.

Brittany Fried

Class: School of Foreign Service, 2019

Major: Regional Comparative Studies (Asia and Africa)

ESJ Location: Lusaka, Zambia

Community Partner: Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection

How did ESJ shape your time at Georgetown? "The ESJ Project was an incredible immersive experience that really honed my interest in Jesuit education and pedagogy, which then fed into a yearlong senior thesis on the topic."

Fellows work to highlight the work of host communities by presenting and publishing their research in public formats. After returning from the field, students present their conclusions at an on-campus conference and produce a digital research report. The presentations and reports are published on the Berkley Center’s website, making the research available to a worldwide audience. These research outputs not only shed light on local initiatives at the intersection of education and social justice; they also help host communities to further build their programming. Community partners have used ESJ reports to support their own grant applications and to make programmatic changes, highlighting the practical implications of the research. 

Harshita Nadimpalli (SFS'18) presents her ESJ research, 2018.
Harshita Nadimpalli (SFS'18) presents her ESJ research, 2018.

As host communities apply ESJ research to improve their programming, fellows can be said to not only study social justice but also to foster equality through their research. “A lot of students understand that how they do the research—why they do it—can have a social justice impact on the world,” says Wisler. “Not just the data they find, but also their own process of being a researcher can be one through which they attempt to create a more just world.”

In some ways, the ESJ Project can be said to foster a kind of symbiotic relationship between student fellow and host community. “There was a mutual respect that I really appreciated: I was really involved in all of their work, and they were grateful to have an American institution spreading the word about their hard work,” recalls Fried. “We were lucky to learn, and they were happy to share."

‘Care of the Whole Person’

Learning about social justice through education shapes the personal development of fellows, who learn not only about but also from their host communities during the course of their ESJ experience. Fellows have cited the program as responsible for personal growth in a wide array of areas, from intellectual outlook to individual worldview to even spiritual orientation. That fellows are so affected by their research experience highlights how the program cultivates the Jesuit precept of cura personalis (care of the whole person), a pillar of the Georgetown education. 

A student at work in Malawi, 2019. Photograph by Isaac Kim (SFS'20).
A student at work in Malawi, 2019. Photograph by Isaac Kim (SFS'20).

Studying programs at the intersection of education and social justice leads to a sort of intellectual transformation for many fellows, who often research school-based settings where they interact with local students. The opportunity to engage with peers from different backgrounds allows fellows to consider new perspectives, much as Thrall experienced while discussing nation-building in the Middle East with students in Amman. “I had certain breakthroughs on problems that I was thinking about during my undergraduate studies,” remembers Thrall, who focused his culture and politics major on nationalism. “Talking about nation-building with these students, one of whom talked about nationalism as an experience they personally lived that had such a violent impact on their life, really put me in my place and added a greater sense of importance to what I was studying.”

Nicholas DiRago enjoys dinner with his host family in Lima, Peru, 2013.
Nicholas DiRago enjoys dinner with his host family in Lima, Peru, 2013.

By gaining a view into the personal experiences of students abroad, fellows have not only the opportunity to consider different ways of thinking but also the chance to contemplate their own positionality, a type of critical reflection not unlike the Ignatian practice of “contemplation in action.” That was what Nicholas DiRago (C’14) experienced as he studied Jesuit schools in Lima, Peru, during summer 2013. “My hosts’ generosity dominates my memory of them,” says DiRago. “Yet an equally valuable part of sharing their space was a window into the power dynamics of carrying a U.S. passport and university ID to the Global South. Paying attention to how my national and institutional connections mediated my relationship with my hosts complicated my understanding of studying abroad and intercultural dialogue.”

Education and Social Justice Project. ESJ fellows reflect on how the program shaped their personal development.

A long-term commitment to social justice often goes hand in hand for fellows as they develop a critical understanding of their place in the world. The innovative ways in which local programs foster equity through education can inform how fellows approach social justice, as Barton experienced during his research of the community-based health network in Brazil. “The idea of the whole person and how it can encompass solidarity with humanity and with your neighbors, friends, and loved ones was something that specifically came from the ESJ Project,” shared Barton. “That vision of human flourishing is what I took away from the program and has shaped how I want to impact the world through participatory design and co-creation for social change.”

Adam Barton flanked by two volunteers from Pastoral da Criança in Brazil, 2014.

Adam Barton

Class: Georgetown College, 2016

Major: Spanish and Portuguese Studies

ESJ Location: Brazil

Community Partner: Pastoral da Criança

How has Georgetown influenced your worldview? “Being at Georgetown, I found what really energizes me and what I want to do with my life: to live in the service of others. I felt empowered by the language of social justice in a way that I had never been before."

The experience of studying communities so dedicated to social justice grounded in Catholic social teaching can also lead fellows on a sort of spiritual journey. Fried knows firsthand how deeply the program can impact its fellows. “I had my greatest personal growth in terms of spirituality at Georgetown,” recalls Fried. “Going to Zambia and spending time with JCTR, spending time with my host family, who is so fully committed to living these Jesuit values, it was really inspirational to know that there is a global Jesuit network beyond Georgetown, a shared cause.” These global connections inspired Fried to undertake the Catholic confirmation process through Georgetown after returning from Zambia, a transformative experience in her religious life.

A Christogram in Zambia, 2018.
A Christogram in Zambia, 2018.

From religious worldview to intellectual disposition, it is difficult to overstate how the ESJ Project has shaped the personal development of its fellows over the past 10 years, helping Georgetown undergraduates grapple with the difficult question of how to approach the world. These students, the next generation of advocates for social justice, have carried lessons learned from the program long into future academic and professional work.

Committed to Change

Alumni of the ESJ Project have pursued positions in a wide variety of fields, from graduate study to professional research to university administration. Many fellows credit the program with nurturing the skills necessary to pursue a more just world, no matter what their line of work. By encouraging students to dedicate their careers to social justice, the ESJ Project has already impacted countless communities worldwide during the past 10 years.

One such way fellows have continued to pursue a vision of equity and inclusion long after the completion of ESJ fieldwork is through similar community-centered research projects. Gianna Maita (C’15) developed a passion for this type of research during her ESJ experience in Nicaragua, where she studied the service-learning program at the Central American University during summer 2014. “The ESJ Project definitely gave me the confidence to continue doing research,” recalls Maita. “I feel that the topic I studied also gave me the desire to work more on applied research. I loved academia, but I feel much more comfortable in the NGO space, where it is easier for our research findings to meet communities where they are.” Maita pursued a master's in justice and transformation and now works for an NGO focused on community development in Cape Town, South Africa.

Gianna Maita (L) with Nicaraguan author Gioconda Belli, 2014.

Gianna Maita

Class: Georgetown College, 2015

Major: Justice and Peace Studies

ESJ Location: Managua, Nicaragua

Community Partner: Central American University

How did ESJ shape your research on the Hilltop? "After my ESJ research, I came to recognize how useful the experience was for writing my senior thesis. I was less nervous about interviews and transcription, so I was really able to throw myself into that next research process."

The program has inspired other alumni to pursue academic research. DiRago, for one, is now a doctoral student in sociology at UCLA, where he focuses on urban inequality. “ESJ was a formative step in my journey towards a career as a social scientist and prepared me to produce the quality of research expected at a top department,” he says. Guidance from faculty members received during the program continues to influence how DiRago approaches his research. “To this day, I frequently think back to an exchange in which one of my ESJ advisors warned me that I was designing my project and framing research questions as if I already knew the answer,” he recalls. “This feedback, which graduate students regularly receive and struggle over, opened my eyes to a core challenge of social science: fusing a critical mind and prior knowledge with humility, rigor, and a sense of wonder about the world around us.”

Adam Barton walks with members of Pastoral da Criança in Brazil, 2014.
Adam Barton walks with members of Pastoral da Criança in Brazil, 2014.

A sense of wonder about the world coupled with experience in fieldwork has allowed ESJ fellows to continue international research through prestigious fellowships, including grants from the Fulbright Program and the Henry Luce Foundation. One such alumnus to receive a Luce grant is Barton, who is leading research on education innovation at the Asia Pacific Institute in Tokyo as a Luce Scholar. Barton credits the ESJ Project as the starting point in a long CV of research positions. “It is hard to emphasize enough how much the experience impacted me,” he says. “I came into Georgetown not knowing that I cared about research, yet ESJ helped me discover this passion for research to effect social change. To have my research training be grounded in community needs and experiences is what drove me to seek out further research opportunities, from a Princeton in Latin America Fellowship to a research assistant position at the Brookings Institution to a Henry Luce Scholarship in Japan.”

ESJ fellows celebrate the launch of their report at the Berkley Center, 2017.
ESJ fellows celebrate the launch of their report at the Berkley Center, 2017.

Thrall, who studied citizenship education in Jordan on a Fulbright Research Fellowship which concluded in 2019, similarly cites his ESJ research in Amman as a key part of his journey to a competitive grant. “Having in-country research experience and being entrusted to do my own research project in the field not only made me more appealing as a candidate for Fulbright but also made me more prepared to navigate my experience as a Fulbright researcher.” The ESJ Project has also shaped how Thrall, who now works as a program assistant at the Council on International Educational Exchange in Amman, spends his spare time. “I ended up spending a chunk of my last year here volunteering for the International Refugees Assistance Project, an NGO that assists refugees and displaced people for third-country resettlement outside of Jordan,” he says. “I was interested in doing that work explicitly because of my ESJ experience.”

2018 Education and Social Justice Project Presentations

Not all alumni of the program pursue careers in research. Some choose to create a more just world through education. Fried, for example, now works as manager of the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown. Her ESJ research on Jesuit education encouraged Fried to pursue a position at Georgetown. “Nearing graduation, I knew there was going to be an opening in the Center for Jewish Civilization,” she recalls. “A lot of the reason why I chose to stay was knowing that I would have more time here at Georgetown to interact with Jesuit education and learn it from an administrative capacity.” As the manager of a Jewish center at a Catholic university, Fried continues to work at the intersection of religion and education much as she did during her ESJ experience.

Mackenzie Price presents her ESJ research, 2019.
Mackenzie Price presents her ESJ research, 2019.

Other fellows bring skills developed during the course of their ESJ research to professional fields such as law and journalism. Price, who plans to enter law school after graduation, considers the program as a formative step in her professional development. “The skills that I learned while interviewing—how to articulate questions properly and how to pick up what people are saying—will absolutely translate to what I want to do to become a litigator,” she says. The interview, writing, and presentation skills that come with ESJ research ensure that students are well equipped for life after Georgetown, no matter what career path they choose.

The ESJ Project has given fellows the opportunity to develop the critical skills needed to pursue graduate study at top programs, win acclaimed research grants, and enter the professional world during the past 10 years. Alumni—who are the next generation of scholars, thought leaders, and professionals—have left the program with a dedication to social justice. They have also benefitted from the opportunity to engage in critical self-reflection, exemplifying the Jesuit precept of cura personalis. Now entering its second decade, the ESJ Project will continue to shape the personal and professional lives of Georgetown students as they work to create a more just world.

Interested in supporting the ESJ Project?