Father S. Xavier Alphonse, S.J.

Empowering the Underprivileged

“Community colleges are in the people-building business,” Father S. Xavier Alphonse, S.J., director of the Indian Centre for Research and Development of Community Education, believes. He first learned about community colleges during a trip to the United States more than 20 years ago, and the experience was eye-opening. “The community colleges helped students complete high school requirements, awarded associate’s degrees, and gave credit that could be applied to a four-year college,” he recalled. He began to think of how these “people’s colleges” or opportunity colleges” could give people in India the skills to live better lives.

“Our goals were to empower, build capacity, and employ,” Father Alphonse said. These efforts led to the creation of more than 200 community colleges that have educated more than 200,000 young men and women throughout India. Father Alphonse stresses that this type of education is not only about creating economic opportunities: “It also helps people become better human beings.”

Students first enroll in a four-month module on life-coping skills, designed to build up self-esteem, decision-making abilities, coping mechanisms, English-language proficiency, and computer skills, among others. Students then go on to modules related to their chosen trades, an internship, and evaluation and assessment of their skills. Ninety-six percent of students achieve employment after completing their community college training. “This not only helps the student but lifts up the whole family,” Father Alphonse said.

Sri Lankan educators traveled to India to learn about community colleges.

Now Father Alphonse is helping the United Board explore how community colleges might help Sri Lanka rebuild a society damaged by civil war. “First, through life-coping skills, community colleges can respond to the lasting effects to the psyche of war-torn generations – their fears, lack of self-worth, and sense of loss. Second, these colleges can show the way to livelihoods.” Early stages of this collaboration would focus on vocational institutions in the Sri Lankan cities of Jaffna and Batticaloa, with a longer-term goal of catalyzing a network of satellite community colleges.

Sri Lankan teachers are searching for a meaningful system, and Father Alphonse has witnessed their sense of purpose in recent United Board-supported faculty development workshops. He expects Sri Lankan teachers will, like him, encounter ups and downs as they develop a community college model to fit local needs and aspirations. He also hopes they will reap the rewards. “The smiles and confidence of former students – who say, ‘I thought I did not have a future and now I have hope’ – have kept me going,” he said.