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October 6, 2014   •   VOL. 52, NO. 17   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
 
Bishop explains schools, identity:
'For a Christ-centered education'

 
Capital Campaign supports
religious education, formation

What makes Sister Julia run?
 

Sister Julia Shideler has made it her mission to send high school students in rural East Timor to college.
COURTESY PHOTO

Independence may be new to East Timor, but poverty is not.

Maryknoll Sister Julia Shideler has been teaching in the small Pacific island nation for the past six years. As she watched her students graduate from high school — a significant accomplishment for children of subsistence farmers — she knew that even for the brightest, college was out of reach for their impoverished families.

So the sister, 36, who made her perpetual vows on Sept. 28, has made it her mission to send them to college, one at a time. Then two, then 10.

"I would like to have more," she said.

Now she is lacing up her running shoes and trying to send 30 students, who will graduate in December, to the national university or one of the nation's private colleges. By running in the Snohomish River half-marathon in Washington state on Oct. 26, she hopes to raise money for their education.

Perhaps the value of education is hard-wired in Sister Julia, who was born while her father was finishing his graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s. Sister Julia was baptized at Newman Hall-Holy Spirit Parish. She grew up in Washington state.

Her life as a missionary sister has taken her to East Timor, where she teaches English at both Catholic and public high schools in the town of Aileu. She started making her own textbooks for the students because, otherwise, they would have none.

 
'Nun on the Run'
Learn more about Sister Julia Shideler's mission,
www.maryknollsisters.org/appeals/
nun-run-scholarship-fund
 
East Timor, the eastern half of an island in Maritime Southeast Asia, is a former Portuguese colony annexed by Indonesia in 1975. The takeover sparked a two-decade rebellion until the Timorese won independence in 1999.

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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