Maryknoll, NY – Sister Julia Shideler, 35, is a nun on the run. Back in the United States for several months of renewal, she is now training for the Snohomish River half-marathon with the goal of raising money for the education of deserving high school and college students. The run will take place on Sunday, October 26, 2014, in Snohomish, WA.
Born in Oakland, CA, and raised in the Seattle area, entering Maryknoll Sisters on August 14, 2005, from Assumption Roman Catholic Church in Bellingham, WA, Sister Julia has spent the last six years of her life serving the economically poor in East Timor, a half-island nation just north of Darwin, Australia. While training several days a week, the students she mentors in Aileu, a town of about 20,000, are never far from her mind. Upon first arriving in 2008, Sister Julia, then just 30 years old, was struck by the seemingly insurmountable poverty her students faced, including lack of textbooks or funding for higher education. Eventually, she would author her own textbooks and workbooks and distribute them among her classes, in addition to providing financial support to deserving students.
The very first student she began supporting, Pinto, graduated early this year with a Bachelor’s degree in English, but his beginnings were less auspicious. She recalls seeing the state of his ragged clothes in the first few weeks of teaching English and guessing at his poverty. “He admitted that he used to go out and steal corn from people’s fields because he didn’t have enough to eat. I was shocked by this kid who was really bright and he kept telling me he wanted to learn English. He was just pushing himself to make it through high school on his own.” Subsequently, after being accepted to the National University of East Timor, he was able to persevere through a combination of part-time work, some support from his parents, and Sister Julia’s funds. This was no easy task, as tuition costs and other fees reach an upper limit of about $350 per semester.
“I use Pinto as an inspiring figure for my students,” she says. “He talks so much about needing to make a sacrifice, otherwise he won’t get anywhere. He’s got more determination than I do.”
It is obvious, however, that Sister Julia, now 36, is not without her own conviction. She does not want to stop at aiding Pinto and a few of her former students. Instead, she speaks fondly of a special group of students who gave up ten weeks of their vacation to take a class, led by Sister Julia, on topics ranging from human origins, sexual reproduction, and Catholic social teaching. If she is able to raise adequate funds, she hopes to present them with scholarship applications so that they, too, can find success in college.
It is not only for purely financial reasons that Sister Julia wants to send more of her students to college. Certainly, she says, they have a much better chance of getting a job, but she sees greater value in the opportunity for personal growth presented by the years spent pursuing a degree. “It’s a way for them to get to know themselves better. To wait before having kids, even to dream about what they could do or what they want to do. They grow so much in their understanding of themselves. They become more aware of the world outside their villages.” Furthermore, she hopes they will learn to be better husband, wives, and parents, and lower the rate of domestic violence that plagues the country.
What keeps her running motivation unhindered in hot, hilly Maryknoll? In part, thinking of the Christmas party she’s going to throw for her students when she returns later in the year. Although she has not yet informed them of her fundraising efforts, she expects they’ll be both surprised and gratified. She imagines their reactions and, ever the teacher, ponders how to translate her actions into a lesson about sacrifice and community.
“I want them to feel like God is there for them, working through other people, and that God will use them in the future to help other people,” she concludes. “It’s that kind of message I want to get across in a way that goes beyond words.”