Independence may be new to East Timor, but poverty is not.
A college education can give the students the careers that their parents do not have. Teaching, Sister Julia said, is "a very respectable, high status position." A decent salary and stable employment await. The government is building schools and hiring teachers.
Sister Julia put her students on the college track early. She told her students of her hopes for them.
"My hope was that before I left East Timor," she said, "one of them would be standing in my place."
She knew as a missionary, her role was not to be there permanently as a teacher. "I didn't want to be taking the place of a Timorese person," she said. "My greatest joy would be for you to put me out of a job."
From the first high school seniors she taught came the first college student she supported. He spent his time away from school volunteering as a teacher in his home area. "He really had a passion for teaching and passing on the English skills because he thinks they're essential."
He graduated with a degree in English, and teaches in the neighboring district.
Some of her students want to be nurses. One wants to study geology; the country's emerging petroleum industry would welcome the assistance.
"Whatever it is they're dreaming about, they can make it if they get a diploma and the social skills," Sister Julia said.
The fees for the highly qualified students to attend the national university are about $30 each semester, she said, with additional — and often daunting — fees of $300 in the first and last. Fees at the private universities are $80 to $120 each semester.
Those fees are due in January, Sister Julia said, "the time when families have the least amount of money."
One cash crop is coffee, which ripens in July and is sold in August. Rice is harvested in early fall. From November to January, she said, is when families have the least amount of food. Corn is harvested later in January.
Once the students are accepted to the university, which is an hour and a half drive from their town — or about a three-hour bus ride each way — comes the hunt for housing closer to campus. Some students may stay with family members in the capital; those who can afford to may rent space in a convent or religious house.
Others will look to hire themselves out as servants or laborers in exchange for room and board.
The rest will gather in groups of about eight, and squat in an abandoned building Sister Julia said, or build their own structure from discarded wood.
In December, Sister Julia will return to her classrooms, where she works part-time at Aileu Public High School and full-time at the St. Paul Catholic High School. "I didn't have the heart to pull out of public high school altogether," she said.
Through the Maryknoll Sisters, Sister Julia has set up a fundraising campaign to support the college students. She hopes also to assist the Dominican Sisters of the Rosary to pay the school fees of several orphans in their care. Information is available at www.maryknollsisters.org/appeals/nun-run-scholarship-fund.
In addition to giving the students a career and a stake in building the economy of their nation, she knows college will provide their own future families with something more. "If anything, you'll become a better parent," she tells them. They will "have something better to offer their children. They don't have to repeat their parents' struggles."
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