By Patrick Verel, Assistant Editor, Office of Marketing & Communications, Fordham University

Internally displaced persons in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (photo by Sergi Camara/Entreculturas via Jesuit Refugee Service International)

Internally displaced persons in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (photo by Sergi Camara/Entreculturas via Jesuit Refugee Service International)

It takes a certain kind of person to take seriously the Ignatian exhortation to “Go forth and set the world on fire.” This fall, students who want to do just that are gaining all of the skills needed to work in the field of humanitarian aid through a new graduate degree program at Fordham University. 

In November 2017, Fordham’s Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs (IIHA) established a Master of Science in Humanitarian Studies, a 30-credit interdisciplinary program built on social justice values and humanitarian principles. Offered through Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, it is the first U.S.-based Master’s degree dedicated exclusively to international humanitarian response. This month, the University welcomed its inaugural cohort of students.

The IIHA already offers an executive-style Master of Arts in Humanitarian Action program for professionals working in the public or non-profit sectors. But according to Brendan Cahill, executive director of IIHA, this new M.S. program will appeal to recent college graduates who want to learn skills that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are looking for.

Cahill says that the need for the program has never been greater. The crisis in Syria, for instance, is just the latest in a series of conflicts that have overwhelmed the ability of the humanitarian sector; conflicts are also affecting Iraq, Palestine, Ukraine, Chad, South Sudan, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia.

“Relief operations are hampered by funds, political will and the lack of trained personnel. Our institute has tried to identify innovative approaches to complex emergencies through our training, our research, and our publications,” Cahill says. “We need people at all levels to be open to new ways of mitigating and responding to these crises. The classes that our students take have direct relevance to what is happening. While they are non-sectarian, they are rooted in social justice and thus our location within a Jesuit university is appropriate.”

One half of the program’s first cohort hails from undergraduate colleges affiliated with the Network on Humanitarian Actions (an international association of universities), while the other half attended Jesuit colleges or universities. Fordham undergraduate students from any degree program will be able to apply in their junior year to an accelerated track, allowing them to complete both a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in just five years. Cahill says, “It’s a natural graduate degree for those students who are already inculcated in Ignatian pedagogy. The Jesuit approach is to look at the whole person, and that’s part of what we’re teaching them.”

The program offers three distinct tracks: Human Rights, Communities and Capacity Building, and Livelihoods and Institutions. Cahill notes that in the past, a person might have obtained a degree in food security, logistics or accounting, and then learned on the job as they rose through the ranks of a NGO. But with this degree, students will graduate with a suite of skills at their fingertips, from financial and communication skills, to data analysis and development.

“By combining these disparate elements, you become a more well-rounded aid professional,” Cahill says. “These skills complement the passion and compassion that naturally leads one into the humanitarian sector.”

All students will take five courses that have been created exclusively for the degree: Fundamentals of Humanitarian Action; Contemporary Issues in Humanitarian Action; Information Management; Humanitarian Resource Management and Administration; and Monitoring and Evaluation in Humanitarian Response.

In addition to classwork, students will have full access to the resources that go into the Institute’s events, such as conferences on blockchain and humanitarian design. When it comes to tackling issues such as migration and refugees, conferences like these are key to staying on top of a fast-changing sector. Cahill notes that blockchain is of special interest to the aid community as it has the potential to make the delivery of funds to those in need more secure, and cut down on waste and corruption. It’s a prime example of how quickly the field is evolving.

Another draw of the degree program is the vast network of partnerships that students will be able to tap into through their classes and a mandatory semester-long internship. If a student is interested in a subject that is not being offered at Fordham, he or she will be able to study it during an internship elsewhere. For example, a class on food security might be offered through the University College in Dublin, and a course on education in emergencies might be offered by Jesuit Refugee Service.

Cahill says, “We can teach students a lot by being in the capital of the world. The United Nations headquarters are based in New York, and there are so many other humanitarian NGOs based here as well. But how else are you going to learn other than by getting experience in the field?

“We’ve been running training programs for 20 years. We have 3,000 alumni in middle-to-senior levels at organizations around the world. There’s a growing number of undergraduates who view their liberal arts education through the prism of humanitarian studies, but for those who want to go into the field, there has to be a mentorship. There has to be a hand that’s put out for them to pull them in. That’s what this program is designed to do.”