By Tim Linn, Marketing Communications Writer, Rockhurst University

Rockhurst University junior Haley Mathews, top left, and 2014 Rockhurst graduate Melissa Hopfinger, lower right, pose for a photo with students from Ocer Campion Jesuit College in Gulu, Uganda. (Photo courtesy of Rockhurst University)

Rockhurst University junior Haley Mathews, top left, and 2014 Rockhurst graduate Melissa Hopfinger, lower right, pose for a photo with students from Ocer Campion Jesuit College in Gulu, Uganda. (Photo courtesy of Rockhurst University)

Since their founding, members of the Society of Jesus have strived to reach out not only to those in their own communities, but across the globe. A program that began last year at Rockhurst University seeks to continue that tradition, by sending a small group of students to rural Gulu, in northern Uganda, in an effort to share knowledge and to build lasting global relationships.

The program places three students for a 10-week internship at Ocer Campion Jesuit College, a residential school for middle- to high-school age students established in Gulu in 2005. Matthew Quick, Ph.D., Vice President for Student Development and Athletics at Rockhurst, said the program built off the success of Rockhurst’s existing short-term service immersion experiences. The University had an existing relationship with Gulu through a program led by Kansas City-area nursing professor David Zamierowski, M.D. that sends nursing students from the Rockhurst-affiliated Research College of Nursing, Johnson County Community College and the University of Kansas there to work in a community medical center.

“What really made the difference for us in being able to make the internship at Ocer possible was the fact that we had that relationship already through the Research College of Nursing and Johnson County Community College,” Quick said. “They spoke about the personal transformations that happened for many of their students, which galvanized our own interest in pursuing this opportunity.”

Rockhurst staff and faculty were asked to encourage students with experience in the subjects identified by Ocer officials as most necessary at the school — math or science —to apply for the internship program. Nicki Schebaum, a junior majoring in medical physics and mathematics and minoring in French, said that as soon as she learned about the opportunity, she wanted to take part.

“Just even reading through the description of the program, I knew it was something I had to do,” she said.

Schebaum was joined by Haley Mathews, a junior, and Melissa Hopfinger, ’14, both of whom were also studying science. The three students prepared for the work they would be doing by learning classroom techniques from Mary Pat Shelledy, Ed.S., the chair of the Rockhurst education department. One month before departure, the group joined the nursing students who would soon be leaving for their own program, at a retreat to learn more about what to expect from the experience.

“In a lot of the preparation, there was an emphasis on being open and listening and growing as an individual,” Shelledy said. 

Even with the preparation, Mathews and Schebaum said traveling to Gulu in mid-May made for an eye-opening experience.

“It’s like a whole different world driving from the south to the north,” Mathews said. “Kampala is the large city in the south, and as we moved closer to Gulu, the land was beautiful, but the conditions just grew more and more impoverished.”

Though trained to teach math and science in the classroom, the three Rockhurst students soon found themselves serving in a number of other capacities. While southern Uganda has experienced economic growth and political stability in recent years, the northern, predominantly rural portion of the country where Ocer is located has only recently seen relative peace after decades of war. Many of the students who Mathews and Schebaum served at Ocer bore both the physical and emotional scars of those years of conflict.

“[Many] of the students were affected by the war, some of them as child soldiers or child brides,” Mathews said. “We spent a lot of time with the students outside of the classroom as tutors and we just listened a lot — we were a kind of outlet for them.”

Both Mathews and Schebaum said they were able to form close relationships with the students. A mid-internship visit from Rockhurst President, Rev. Thomas B. Curran, S.J. was “re-energizing” and helped them to view their work as an example of “the ministry of presence.”

Quick said that the initial trip was emblematic of the hopes for the internship program in the future — that, through the 10-week immersion, the participating students from Rockhurst could gain a better understanding of the value of lifelong service and form long-lasting relationships with people from a different culture.

That includes little things. Among other lessons, Schebaum said that she has tried to incorporate the meaning behind a common Ugandan phrase, translated as “slowly, slowly,” into her everyday life. 

But it also means long-term commitments. After her internship, Hopfinger went back to Ocer to serve as an English writing instructor for the school. Mathews and Schebaum both said they have stayed in touch with the students they lived and worked with, recently learning that every single member of Ocer’s founding class passed their exit exams.

“We talk about going back all the time,” said Mathews. “The people there had kind of become part of our family. They show love in such an incredible way.”

Word has spread quickly about the program at Rockhurst. Quick said that twenty highly-qualified students applied to take part this summer, a significant increase over the first year. And one of Ocer’s administrators will soon be coming to Rockhurst to work on his graduate degree.

Quick said that it’s a sign of the growing relationship between Rockhurst and Ocer, and a great expression of the Jesuit core value of “men and women for and with others.”