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Sorin sends students to Uganda

John Paul Witt | Friday, April 20, 2007

Notre Dame students may have heard about the problems facing Uganda through classes, academic forums and campus events this year, but it’s likely few realize that Sorin College has been sending students and money to the East African country for almost four years now.Since the summer of 2003, Sorin has worked with the Center for Social Concerns and the Indiana Province of the Congregation of Holy Cross to send one student each summer for an eight-week placement at St. Jude Primary School, a Catholic grade school in Buwekula, Uganda. Last summer, junior Patrick Reidy was chosen to work at St. Jude and had an experience he said has “stolen a piece of his heart.”It’s not every day that students are willing to work in a country famous for its long-standing civil conflict, though Reidy admits that his reasons for going were “selfish.””I never needed anything growing up, and I wanted to see if I could be the good person I hope I am when things aren’t as easy, when things are really difficult,” he said. “It wasn’t a very Africa-oriented reason.”Reidy said his most important lesson came not in the classroom, but through his daily interactions with Ugandans.”The people [in Uganda] aren’t looking for you to save them,” he said, “They want you to share in their struggle, to know, and to care.”Reidy, a political science major, was at first slated to teach social studies, but wound up teaching religion, math, physical education and science. For Reidy – who said he “didn’t know anything about Ugandan history” – crossing ethnic, cultural and linguistic barriers in the classroom was not easy, despite a state-mandated, standardized curriculum.”It was hard to communicate,” he said. “I can’t speak their language and they can’t speak English well – imagine teaching a religion class to kids in middle school and trying to answer, ‘How can I believe in God if I can’t see him?'”Despite this, Reidy said the experience of teaching was tremendously rewarding.”In an eight-week program you either find a way to swim or you drown,” he said.Reidy, like the Sorin students who visited Uganda before him, engaged in fundraising for St. Jude when he returned to the U.S. – something he was not obligated to do.A problem he faced was the enormous cost of expanding the school to parents and administrators in Uganda.”Ten thousand dollars is an impossible amount … when a sweet roll and a bottle of Coke costs a family its weekly income, maybe more,” he said. Back in the U.S., the Sorin students have been successful in their fundraising. The dorm recently surpassed $75,000 in funds raised for St. Jude and in support of future summer placements.Reidy and senior Michael Dewan have both won awards for their work in Uganda with Sorin College. Reidy was recently recognized with the prestigious Lou Holtz Leadership Scholarship for outstanding campus leadership, and Dewan was awarded the senior award for Outstanding Service. Dewan was also a panelist in Notre Dame’s academic forum on health, where he spoke about his experiences with AIDS in Uganda.Sorin College’s involvement with Uganda began after rector Father Jim King attended a presentation given by Brother John Bailanda, then Director of Development for the Congregation of Holy Cross in East Africa. “There were lots of pictures of kids who obviously needed help and I realized that this is the sort of thing that college students would like to help with,” King said. King offered to raise money for Holy Cross’ projects. Bailanda suggested the proceeds be used for St. Jude School, since it was particularly in need. King began to take up a collection at dorm Masses on football weekends, but then began to see that the dorm could do something more to help.”I got students interested by posting pictures of the kids in Uganda and I realized that we could probably get a grant to start a summer placement for a Sorin resident in Uganda,” King said.After students returned from Uganda, their experiences “motivated others to engage in service” both in the local community and abroad, King said.”Our students, coming into contact with the Ugandan people have enriched their lives – the best part for me is seeing how student’s lives have been transformed by their desire to go back [to Uganda] and do good and make a difference,” King said.