By Steve Lalli
Graduation day will be held in November for seniors at St. Paul Catholic High School (Colégio São Paulo). As they receive their prized diplomas, the newly graduated members of the Class of 2014 in Aileu, East Timor, will have plenty of memories of lessons learned in the classroom. A Maryknoll Sister, though, will never forget what her students taught her.
“They led me out of the classroom and into villages, beaches, boats, marketplaces, kitchens, and mountain trails in the name of ‘teaching,’”Sister Julia Shideler said of the students who have risen from the poverty of their country to graduate.
“They taught me that a teacher is first of all a person who cares, gives of herself, practices what she teaches, models behavior rather than preaches it, has infinite patience, and offers all that she’s learned in life as living wisdom for a new generation.” Since arriving in East Timor six year ago, Sister Julia has taught subjects as diverse as geology, human origins, and English. Lately, she’s had lots of time to think about the students she said goodbye to for several months this year as she discerned professing Final Vows in September.
In addition to her preparation for Final Vows, Sister Julia, 36, has spent the last five months training to run a half-marathon race near Seattle. For each mile she completed in the Snohomish River Run on October 26, supporters are pledging to donate to the scholarship fund she created for her students back in East Timor. The teens’ fervent desire is to graduate from college, a dream that most of their families cannot afford.
“I was not a trained teacher when I left for East Timor, but what I learned about teaching came from my experiences with these beloved ones,” Sister Julia said of the teens, who have become more than ordinary students. Throughout the half-marathon, held in Snohomish, WA, the young people were on her on mind with each sprint she exerted. Sister Julia was happy with her success in the 13.5-mile race–she crossed the finish line with a time of one hour, 59 minutes and 17 seconds. That translates to about 9 minutes per mile! To all of her students back in East Timor, she says, “Thank you.”
Sister Julia is one of four Maryknoll Sisters who serve the economically poor in the island nation of 1,201,542 people (CIA World Factbook) just north of Darwin, Australia, with Indonesia as its neighbor. Education remains a challenge following years of war as the nation struggled for independence. Over 70 percent of children leave school before reaching the ninth year, according to the country’s Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030. In 2004, when a comprehensive census was completed, less than one in two people graduated from high school.
Celina Saldanha is among the lucky ones. A young woman in high school, Celina has eight young siblings and a single mother who suffers from back injuries. Celina was sent to Aileu to live with an uncle, Sister Julia said, but he can’t afford the school fees. ”I agreed to pay her tuition at the Catholic high school until she graduates. Otherwise, she may be forced to drop out.”
Francisco Martins also has a dream. Francisco was orphaned at a young age, losing both parents during the Indonesian occupation. Raised by an uncle, he was left alone after finishing high school. “I knew he was bright and capable,” Sister Julia said, “so with our support, he enrolled in mathematics with the dream of becoming a math teacher.”
“This ministry is ongoing,” she said, “as I try to follow up and stay in touch with the students.” During these months serving in the United States, while visiting family in the state of Washington, Sister Julia is preparing to return to East Timor with news of the scholarships she will be offering, raised in part from her half-marathon in October.
In giving educational scholarships to more young people in Aileu District, including deserving members of the Class of 2014 at St. Paul’s, Sister Julia is hoping they learn a fundamental message of mission—and of life: “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.”