Working with refugees in the Middle East inspired education entrepreneurship

March 4, 2015

Colin Gilbert had been working with refugees in Jordan for 10 months when neighboring Syria collapsed under a devastating civil war. 

Colin with 2 women in Amman

Colin Gilbert talks with two women who participated in the Jesuit Refugee Service program Gilbert organized in Amman, Jordan. Gilbert is now a Penn GSE Education Entrepreneurship M.S. Ed. Student.


As rebels and the Assad regime battled for territory, and later, as ISIS came to power amid even more bloodshed, over 500,000 Syrians poured into Jordan. Gilbert, directing a program to assist and educate Iraqi refugees, had to re-tool and re-organize on the fly. New programs were created to serve the immediate needs of the arriving Syrians. A new headquarters opened near the border. Services were organized in Aleppo and other war-torn cities.

Even for someone with Gilbert’s experience in development and aid work, trying to ease the overwhelming suffering provided many lessons on what can, and can’t, be done, especially when the needs are great and money limited.

“I was disillusioned to some degree by how dependent all humanitarian nonprofit work is on donor aid,” Gilbert said.

After three years in Jordan, Gilbert, 29, brought those lessons with him to Penn GSE. As a member of the inaugural cohort of the M.S.Ed. in Education Entrepreneurship, he’s seeking ways for educational and developmental programs to be more sustainable, and ultimately, more successful.  

The accelerated four-semester program — the first of its kind in an education school — provides working professionals with the skills and experiences necessary to conceptualize, develop, and manage effective innovations in education. Students are drawn from a wide array of backgrounds and have an equally diverse set of goals to improve education through innovation and entrepreneurship in the United States and around the world. 

“I’m in this program because I’m passionate about using education as a catalyst for social change,” Gilbert said. “I’m really interested in developing educational programs for people most in need, but doing it in a way that’s more sustainable. I want to use entrepreneurship and the market to have sustainable revenue and have lasting impact.”

Gilbert says his life was changed by a school trip to Juarez, Mexico, when he was 15. The contrast between life there and his home in middle-class Phoenix troubled him.

“Just seeing the reality of poverty,” Gilbert said. “I was born on one side of the border and was granted significant privilege. It left me extremely uncomfortable and with a passion to make our world look different than it does, and really work for social change on behalf of those who are poor and marginalized.”

He earned his undergraduate degree at Loyola Marymount. While there, he was involved in Jesuit-run programs in East Los Angeles. After graduating, he worked with Jesuit Refugee Services in Colombia and El Salvador. There, he learned about Jesuit scholars who were murdered during the Salvadorian Civil War while advocating for those living at the margins. He started asking, “Who needs that sort of fierce advocate today?”

His answer led him to Jordan. He arrived in 2011, just as the Arab Spring was gaining momentum across the Middle East. The Jesuit Refugee Services program he directed in Amman worked with Iraqi, Sudanese, and Somali refugees, many of whom lacked permanent homes or schools for their children.

Gilbert’s team created an informal educational program, which offered early childhood education as well as English and computer classes for adults. They also established a blended learning higher education program for refugees accredited by Regis University in Denver. They were making progress when the escalation of the Syrian conflict forced Gilbert and his team to re-imagine the size and scope of the programs.

The Syrian refugees — eventually one in every 10 people living in Jordan was Syrian — followed waves of refugees from Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan. Despite its best efforts, the country was overwhelmed.

 “You just see how a country that is middle-income is trying to host a large wave of refugees, and was struggling to keep its economy growing without that situation,” Gilbert said. “There’s a lot of tension that comes from that.”

Theoretically, refugee children had access to Jordanian schools, but few were enrolled, Gilbert said, even after two years as refugees. Jesuit Refugee Service tried to fill some of the void by opening providing catch up classes to Syrian children to prepare them to enter schools in Jordan.

Gilbert, unable to travel to Syria, saw the war from just across the border as he assisted with coordination of a massive relief effort inside. Colleagues were killed, others learned their homes had been destroyed in the fighting.

“Over a two year period,” Gilbert said, “I watched a country that was normal and beautiful and a cultural capital of the world in some ways just deteriorate and fall apart.”

Eventually, Gilbert started to wonder how programs like his could be more effective. After he returned to the states last spring, he submitted an application to join the first cohort of the Education Entrepreneurship program at Penn GSE.

The executive-style format means he can continue working full time while earning his master’s. Based in Miami, Gilbert is now with Accelerate Change, an organization using entrepreneurship to build membership for a national immigrant association. They’re using some of the largest civil society organizations, like AARP, as a model, with the hopes of offering tangible value to members in addition to representative voice, Gilbert said.

Gilbert is developing an intensive immersive English language-learning course for Accelerate Change that utilizes video conference technology. 

His coursework and day job fed one another, as he used the English language program in a class project to quickly and iteratively test a potential business model.

“Even just going through the process of that in the real world and in class, I don’t think it could have lined up any better,” Gilbert said. “That’s the best way of learning, where you have theory and you’re lining it up with what you’re doing in real life. 

“I’m meeting with my colleagues saying ‘check out what I learned at Penn,’ then I meet with my classmates and say, ‘check out what I learned from my colleagues.’ In the last six months, I don’t think I could have learned this much in any other format.”


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