Princeton’s Global History Lab reaches students on the margins

Written by
Alexandra Jones for the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies
Nov. 2, 2022

A virtual course brings together learners from across the globe — and gives them the tools they need to tell their own stories.

In the Global History Lab (GHL), Princeton University students can study the war in Ukraine, the Taliban’s recent takeover of Afghanistan and mass displacement in East Africa from people who have experienced those events firsthand. This one-of-a-kind online course brings together learners from all over the world with the goal of fostering empathy, promoting civic engagement and changing higher education’s approach to historical research and knowledge creation.

Jeremy Adelman, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History and GHL’s founder, began teaching the course 12 years ago as a massive open online course in which anyone could enroll. In its first year, Adelman taught global history from the 13th century to the present to 95,000 people worldwide. “My initial motivation was to try to get Princeton undergraduates to be embedded in world conversations about the past,” he said. “It was an intellectual mosh pit.” 

The program changed direction when Adelman realized that refugees of Syria’s civil war were enrolling in the course. “We began conversations about how to bring Syrian students, and refugees more generally, into a learning system to close the gap between those with access to the most privileged institutions and students who were totally excluded from higher education,” he said.

In 2020, the GHL partnered with the Open Society University Network (OSUN) to focus its mission on expanding access to higher education to students and faculty on the margins; In the 2021-22 academic year, nearly 500 students enrolled. In addition to undergraduates at 27 partner institutions, including universities in emergency zones like Ukraine and Afghanistan, GHL collaborates with NGOs, like the Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative in Uganda and the OSUN Hubs for Connected Learning Initiatives in Jordan and Kenya, to engage learners college-age and older who are shut out of higher education due to their status.

“The Global History Lab is a learning center for us to think about higher education on the edge — the edge where the growth is, but also the edge in figuring out how to create access for people who are excluded and clamoring to get in,” Adelman said. “There’s a yearning on the part of so many of our students to learn. They want to be part of this.”

Jeremy Adelman teaching refugee students in Kakuma, Kenya

The program uses advanced virtual learning technology to distribute video lectures, course materials and online discussions. Doctoral students at OSUN partner institutions, like Princeton and Central European University, lead students in small sections, conducting town hall-style meetings online. The curriculum also includes lessons in collecting oral histories and the opportunity to present research projects to classmates and to the public on the lab’s Global History Dialogues site. This reciprocal model means students learn a more nuanced, interconnected history informed by their peers’ unique perspectives.

Creating access for learners on the margins is not without its challenges. Those based in refugee camps or countries under authoritarian rule often struggle with limited or nonexistent access to computers, research materials and Internet bandwidth. Rather than laptops and tablets, students watch lectures, do classwork and even write essays on their smartphones — a movement towards mobility and flexibility that Adelman sees as the future of higher education.

“The huge demand for higher education around the world is in Africa, Latin America, South and Southeast Asia,” he said. “They just don’t have access to the same brick-and-mortar institutions that we think of as the icons of higher education.”

Ehiopian refugee Gerawork Teferra has lived at Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwest Kenya since 2011; he took part in the GHL course during the 2020-21 academic year. “Living in the camp as a refugee, I was interested in this course because of the long-standing question I had: ‘What is going on? Why am I here?’” he said. “I wanted to see the future based on understanding past history.”

Teferra was encouraged to continue his research, compiling oral histories of life in Kakuma via Global History Dialogues. With guidance and support from GHL instructors, he published “Kakuma Refugee Camp: Psuedopermanence in Permanent Transience,” featuring the voices of 20 fellow refugees who have lived in the camp for more than a decade, in a 2022 issue of Africa Today.

“In all my learning journey I haven’t lost the accompaniment, advice and support of the GHL team,” Teferra said. He’s planning to continue his research on the human condition and societal organization, and recently won a grant through Imagining Futures at Exeter University to conduct a historical archiving project in the Kakuma camp.

Still, he’s keenly aware of the irony of learning about the forces that have shaped world history from a refugee camp. “Is that really me as a victim who should study GHL or the power that causes instability and ‘displacement’?” he said. “I might be wrong, but I think that a course like GHL may be more appropriate to the people who are in the office than to those who are in the desert.”

Despite the barriers learners who are impacted by war, environmental catastrophe and political strife face, GHL can offer meaningful moral support as well as an orientation to academic norms and a certificate from Princeton. After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 2021, Kardan University and Rana University in Kabul teamed up with GHL to offer the course to students, including women and girls who are now banned from schools.

“They are living under a lot of tension; Mentally, they are not at peace,” said Abdul Wahid Wafa, professional specialist in Princeton’s Humanities Council and Program in Journalism; He leads a cohort of GHL students in Afghanistan. “But here, they found an opportunity.”

For Wafa’s students, connecting with instructors and peers, learning how peoples throughout history have fought oppression, and sharing their own insights and experiences has been a vital lifeline. “It creates a big hope among young students in Kabul that they are in a class which is taught globally in different parts of the world,” he said. “They are proud of this.”