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“I’m Nowhere Near Understanding What I’ve Seen or Learned”

Alums tackle Arabic language study — and more — in UAE, Oman, and Jordan

The following article will appear in the Fall, 2017 issue of Tidings, the school’s annual report. 

Victoria Sirois, JPII ’13 and Peter Hartnett, SFXP ’11 JPII ’15, have learned first-hand the life-changing impact of encounter. Hartnett and Sirois spent their recent summers experiencing faith, culture, language, and people in the middle-eastern nations of Oman, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates; and in so doing, have encountered others — and themselves — in significant ways. Tidings sat down with Sirois and Hartnett to learn how their Catholic education prepared them for global plurality, and the way their Middle Eastern encounters have shaped their lives today.

Victoria Sirois graduated this past May from Loyola University (MD) with a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and a minor in Business and Latin American Studies. As an undergraduate, Sirois worked with the Baltimore Diocesan outreach Esperanza Center, providing services to immigrants, and the Asylee Women Enterprise, a group founded by Catholic sisters, who helps women seeking asylum to rebuild their lives by providing transitional housing, companionship, and community. Through these volunteer experiences, Victoria came to know women from Latin America, Africa, and Syria who are persevering through difficult circumstances.

While studying Spanish in Acalá, Spain in 2015, Sirois saw the confusion and panic caused by the Paris attacks. “I felt there was something missing,” she said. “The women that I knew were not like this at all. I began to seek what I could do to bridge the gap between Western views of Islam and the women I knew.”

During her sophomore year, Sirois “took a shot in the dark” and signed up for Arabic study, one of four students total. She took to it and later was selected for The William Jefferson Clinton Scholarship at the American University in Dubai, a program which gives Americans based in the US the chance to broaden their educational and cultural experience by studying in the Arab world.

While in Dubai, Sirois studied Arabic and encountered other people in challenging ways. “I started to see the side of the ‘other,’ those who have had family impacted by the events that many Westerners learn about from afar. I saw that as an American,  I represented America and could see the hurt in other people. There is misunderstanding on both sides, and I wanted to bring greater understanding to Westerners about Arabic culture, and to my Muslim friends, greater understanding, too.”

With Sirois’ Spanish and Arabic skills, corporate work might beckon. But due to her encounters with migrant women, and as a student who studied abroad, Sirois was motivated to help others. She is currently a candidate for an exclusive program in Brussels and hopes to focus on legal issues in migration and the shadow world of human trafficking.

Looking back, Victoria’s love of language study started with Señora Carpenter’s Spanish classes. “Señora Carpenter sparked me 100 percent. She showed me what I could do and made me feel special for wanting to know and love world cultures,” said Sirois. “Señora Carpenter has kept in touch and encouraged me as I began my study of Arabic. The JPII teachers have made a big difference in my life.”

Beyond this, “I received a well-rounded education at JPII and Loyola but especially learned to focus on encountering other people. At JPII, I learned service. Now, I hope to make even the smallest difference in the world with the skills and experiences I have learned.”

Peter Hartnett’s applied mathematics study at Harvard University would seem to many to be quite challenging enough. However, Hartnett, a ROTC participant, took the opportunity to study Arabic language through the Department of Defense’s Project GO (Global Officer) program. In 2016, Hartnett studied in Muscat, Oman, and in 2017, Amman, Jordan.

“Arabic is an incredibly challenging language to learn. There are sounds we just don’t make in English. There has been so much that is new and different these past two summers.” Hartnett said. “What’s most important to me, though, is the human encounters that global study provides. During my last week in Oman, I had dinner at my Omani conversation partner’s home. These encounters are now part of me.”

Hartnett sees his experiences through the lens of his Catholic faith and the Church’s relationship with Islam. “In Muscat, the Grand Mosque is an incredibly beautiful, peaceful place, and was constructed only fifteen years ago. It shows a living faith. At the same time, I was able to attend Mass at Ghala Church near the Grand Mosque. While Catholics are a small part of Oman, I worshiped with immigrants such as Southeast Asians, and Filipinos.”

Hartnett studied each of the past two summers during Ramadan and found the rhythm of life transformed by the holy season.

“This year, I decided to keep the Muslim fast (during Ramadan). The goals of Ramadan, as a holy month, are similar to Lent in the way of fasting, building personal discipline, and spiritual growth. But the fast is not limited to food and water. Smoking, gambling, gossip — we abstain from anything not pure, good, and holy. These are universal goals, and I felt that I could grow from sharing the Muslim fast.

“The first few days were the hardest. I also made time for reading and personal prayer, and that helped. The ‘Call to Prayer’ is pretty moving. The first words are ‘God is greater…’ and this means God is greater than what we are sacrificing and greater than anything.

“I respect Muslims in the USA who observe Ramadan without the social supports that I saw in Oman and Jordan.”

Hartnett credits his SFXP and JPII education with providing him a firm foundation from which to grow and explore.

“I remember reading Persepolis in Ms. Hanley’s sophomore English class. The novel is set in Iran, and I could see that there are countries that are villainized in the Western narrative. Reading Persepolis showed me that there are always people to love and respect everywhere.”

Hartnett now returns to Harvard and will continue with Arabic study. Ultimately, he may pursue diplomatic work after his military commitment is completed.

Sirois and Hartnett’s encounters give testimony that a strong Catholic, liberal arts education prepares students for the world’s plurality and to love and serve those they meet.

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