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Kevin Fleming’s mission to serve prepared him for his greatest challenge—rebuilding Liberia, a nation devastated by disease
[divider] LIBERIA [/divider]
By the time he enters the Ebola treatment clinic in early October last year, Kevin Fleming has already gotten a feel for what’s happening to this West African nation and its capital, Monrovia. The rainy season is ending. The air is steamy and damp. At the airport, they took his temperature and made him wash his hands in bleach water. Driving up and down the dusty streets of the big city, he noticed the buckets of bleach water waiting outside the doorways of homes and offices. No one shakes hands. No one hugs. People keep their distance. The Ebola epidemic raging across the country has taken hold.
[lightbox link=”#”][/lightbox]In the days to follow, he would meet with the president of Liberia and her minister of health and with officials from the United Nations, the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Agency for International Development. He would penetrate the rain forest on the back of a motorcycle and get dropped into a remote village by U.N. helicopter. But for the moment, as the interim director for the non-profit Last Mile Health, Fleming needs to see how the Ebola clinics are operating, how the patients are treated, how the health care workers do their jobs.
His tour of the Ebola Treatment Unit, opened by Doctors Without Borders in August when the Ebola crisis was escalating, begins in the area where new arrivals come in to be tested. They’re the ones showing active symptoms of the disease. They have fever. They’re weak and nauseous. They’ve been around people who’ve been sick with Ebola. They’re placed in a white tent used as a holding area for those suspected of being infected. Those who test positive are taken into the bowels of the clinic for treatment, an area known as the hot zone. A few survive and come back out. More than half do not.
In the midst of the activity, Fleming hears a young girl crying, “No, no.” He turns and sees a health care worker and a doctor, both in bulky yellow hazmat suits, their faces hidden by white head gear, reach for the girl. She’s around 12 years old. She cries as they pull her away from her family. There are three of them, crying and huddling together. They’re trying to say goodbye, but they don’t know how without wrapping their arms around her.
“It was hard to see a family left behind and sad, because they know the outcome is not good if you test positive for Ebola, and they can’t console each other, and I can’t go hug them and console them,” Fleming says. “It was like time stood still.”
They walk past the family and the doctors and the girl. “God bless,” says a person leading his group.
Fleming would never see the girl again. He doesn’t know what happened to her or if she even survived. But she becomes, for him, the face of Ebola, an image that seals for him the reason he is here, in Liberia, helping Last Mile Health combat the escalating Ebola epidemic. It’s also symbolic of why he’s embarked on this lifelong journey to improve other people’s lives through education and knowledge. He knows his work with Last Mile Health will be purposeful, but it will end in four months, and the next phase of his life will begin as he starts a new job as a Peace Corps Country Director. He hopes it’s in Liberia.
His impact on the ability of Last Mile Health to respond to the epidemic does not go unnoticed by Dr. Raj Pinjabi, its founder and CEO.
“One thing about Kevin is his courage,” Pinjabi says. “Being on the front lines of the world’s worst epidemic in the last century, and doing it with the good humor, charm and leadership he brings, and that courage he displays, is huge. His connection with Liberia has helped this country through this crisis, and it’s an invaluable perspective to bring to the Peace Corps.”
Being a Country Director is a long-held dream for Fleming. Now it’s coming true and all he can think about is how fortunate he is. It’s a feeling that began when he was a student at Xavier and discovered that helping others was an actual student activity and even a profession for some. Growing up on a farm in central Ohio, he knew about hogs and business and hard work and pitching in for his community, but this idea of intentional service work to benefit whole communities was entirely new. He was drawn to it like a magnet, and after graduating in 1994 with a degree in psychology, he went through a series of life-changing experiences with non-profit organizations from California to New York and eventually around the world.
Now, witnessing the stomach-churning separation of a child from her family, who no doubt wonder if they’ll ever see her again, if she’ll survive the virus, or if they’ll get sick, too, Fleming comes face to face with the reason he’s here, in this clinic in Monrovia so far from his Ohio home. He realizes it’s where he was always meant to be, that it’s his mission to bring knowledge to people wherever they are so they can make more informed decisions about their lives that in turn will help them to live—and live well.
He’s been preparing for it all his life.
[divider] CINCINNATI [/divider]
[lightbox link=”#”][/lightbox]On a Sunday night during his early years at Xavier, Fleming sat in a pew in Bellarmine Chapel listening to a sermon by Michael Graham, SJ, who was then a member of the faculty. He was talking about a moment when he’d made one of the most important decisions of his life—how he weighed his love for God and the Church against his desire for marriage and family and how in the end he chose the priesthood. The sermon made a huge impact on Fleming because of the gravity of the decision Graham had to make.
“What I remember was him making a huge leap of faith based on something he believed in, and he believed this was the path he needed to follow,” Fleming recalls. “It made an impression on me because of the way he verbalized the decision-making process in his life.”
Graham’s words resonated with Fleming because he was trying to make a decision about what to do with his own life. He’d planned to join the family business back in Baltimore, Ohio, and was studying psychology and business in preparation. Growing up on the farm was great training. It was fun but it was also hard work, and when the recession hit in the 1980s, it didn’t pay so well. But Fleming and his two sisters didn’t know how tough it had become. They were too busy helping with the hogs, cows, corn, beans and hay, pitching in from the time they could walk. He also was in 4-H, raising pigs named Moe and Dave to show at the fair. But when everyone else started losing their farms, Fleming’s parents converted from farming to landscaping. Fleming switched from caring for animals to riding lawn tractors in the summer and selling Christmas trees in the winter. It was an important lesson about resilience and entrepreneurship.
[lightbox link=”#”][/lightbox]“One of my first memories is bringing all the money home at night and breaking it up into notes and then putting it in the bank the next day, and figuring out how much it cost for each semi-truck load of trees and how much to spend,” he says. “I remember counting money on the floor every night of the Christmas season to see if we broke even or not.”
But when he came to Xavier, he discovered the Dorothy Day House and its mission of service. It was a whole new world for him where people did amazing things for other people both within Cincinnati’s poorest neighborhoods and in rural areas considered “off the grid.” He signed up for one of their trips and the next year was sleeping in the attic of a farmhouse in rural Appalachia, where he and other students worked over a weekend to help teach and learn about sustainable agricultural practices.
The experience triggered in him a desire to do more, and it dogged him, even after graduating and returning home to work in the family business as the operations and human resources manager for Keller Farms. But the seed for wanting to help others had been planted and there was no turning back. “I was inching into this,” he says. “Xavier gave me a playground to dip my toe into and try different things and it had its impact on me, but I didn’t know how to turn it into a full-time job, and I was afraid to because I didn’t know people who did it.”
Thinking back on Graham’s difficult life-changing decision, Fleming mustered up his own courage and applied to Teach for America, and got in. “I wanted to be part of a movement, to be around people who wanted to make a statement and change in the world,” he says.
In August 1996, Fleming left for Compton, Cal., and never looked back.
[divider] LOS ANGELES [/divider]
Usually, after school got out for the day, the kids would hang around outside and kick soccer balls to each other. Fleming would be in his classroom cleaning up and getting lesson plans ready for the next day, and he’d hear the soccer ball—thunk, thunk, thunk—against the side of the building. It was almost as if the kids were letting him know they were still there, still safe, which in this part of South Central Los Angeles, was a constant worry. Gangs of young Latinos and blacks roamed the neighborhoods, and gang shootings were not uncommon.
[lightbox link=”#”][/lightbox]Fleming was totally and culturally out of place, a white college-educated farm boy from the Midwest, plopped down in the middle of Compton, a working-class community known for hip-hop, rap groups and gang activity. He had nothing in common with his middle school-age students, half of whom spoke Spanish or broken English. He had 36 very-needy kids and few textbooks. The situation was challenging, but he took night classes, learning Spanish and how to be a better teacher. “I was not the most effective teacher, but my kids challenged me to be better, and they actually learned,” he says.
The day the soccer ball stopped thunking against the wall, however, was a different kind of lesson for Fleming. He heard a gunshot and ran outside. The janitor told him to stay back as a group of students carried an injured boy away. It was a gang shooting. The boy didn’t die, but it dawned on Fleming that it was after school “and these kids are shooting each other.” He had to do something, so he and some other teachers created an after-school program of sports and theater to give them something constructive to do.
It helped, but the shootings didn’t stop. In Fleming’s second year, a third-grade boy from his school was caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting while waiting at his bus stop. The boy died. Fleming was traumatized, but he didn’t realize just how much until after they planted a tree in the boy’s memory and he stood up in front of his class to teach them something—anything—about what had happened. He remembers standing there, unable to speak, thinking about how fast these kids had to grow up, and the tears began to flow. A little girl named Blanca, a third-grader, walked up to him and put her arms around him.
“She hugs me in front of the class, and she said, ‘We all know someone who’s been shot in our lives.’ And each child in the classroom said who they knew who’d been shot. I realized they were consoling me.”
He also realized that as a teacher, it was his job to be counselor, doctor, nurse and pediatrician for his students, that he was responsible for their mental well-being as well. Fleming’s philosophy for his life’s work was starting to take shape, but he knew to accomplish it, he had to focus on changing the system, which meant leaving the classroom. At the end of the school year, he moved to Boston to work for an organization that focuses on creating after-school programs.
“My mantra became wherever I work, the job has to be providing access to information to people so they can make informed decisions about their lives,” Fleming says.
Fleming honed his philosophy over the next two years while working for Citizen Schools as a senior campus director, developing and managing after-school programs but also gaining experience managing paid and volunteer staff, budgets and fundraising. But as much as he was learning, something was still missing. So when he was offered a ticket to Harvard’s graduation ceremony, he knew he had to go. Nelson Mandela was speaking, and he thought he might learn something important from the man who had stopped apartheid. Fleming stood on the concrete steps 50 yards away, and it was as if Mandela was speaking to him. His personal mission began to come into focus.
“Mandela said, ‘We live in this world and you have this country with lots of power, and so be involved, act,’ and I thought, am I doing enough?” Fleming says. “I’m thinking I could go overseas and expand my perspective on the world, and then I hear him speak and I think, hell yes, I’m going. It confirmed in me I can live this mission-driven life and do something to help humanity. I left the speech wanting to go overseas.”
A year later, he applied to the Peace Corps and was accepted for a two-year term.
[divider] LESOTHO [/divider]
One afternoon in Lesotho, a land-locked country within the Republic of South Africa, the village chief told Fleming to follow him. They were going for a walk up the mountain.
“Thabang,” he said, using the African name they gave Fleming when he got to Haratema. “Come with me.”
[lightbox link=”#”][/lightbox]Since Fleming had arrived in 2002 as the Peace Corps’ community health and permaculture manager, he’d focused on helping the rural area build agricultural trading centers. The village chief, however, had told him they wanted pipes. Fleming ignored him. He knew better, he thought, because he was trained and had done his homework. “He said, ‘We want the pipes,’ but I didn’t understand. I told him we’re not doing pipes, we’re doing agriculture, and we don’t need pipes for sustainable agriculture.”
But the villagers had been living through a drought, and finally it rained. Fleming and the chief marched up the mountainside, and when they were about halfway up, Fleming looked out over the countryside and noted how beautiful it was.
“Look down,” the chief said. Fleming looked and saw water bubbling up around his feet. It was a natural spring, and the water was flowing up out of the ground in an area where the earth was flat. The chief told him it only shows up when it rains.
“My heart sank,” Fleming says, “because they’d been telling me all along they wanted pipes to take water from the spring to the village. They’d been getting water from the river, which was contaminated. But it wasn’t him, it was me. I wasn’t listening.”
A true leader takes time to analyze all the needs of the village, he says, and learn from the people who’ve lived there for centuries. It was one of the most difficult lessons Fleming learned in his experiences in mission-driven work. He was humbled, but he realized his mistake and changed the project. They would build a gravity flow water system to bring the water by pipe from the spring to the village. He read books on gravity flow water systems and arranged for an engineer to train the villagers and also for a year’s worth of food so they could come out of the fields to work on the project. It was finished in 2004. The chief and the villagers were overjoyed.
“They all worked on it every day for one year and when it was done, I was happy. And I had learned something,” Fleming says. “I’m not an engineer, but it’s one of my proudest achievements.”
[divider] LIBERIA [/divider]
Fleming was sitting on a beach in Costa Rica last September, enjoying the warmth, the sand, the rain forest scenery contrasted against crystal blue water. He was finally taking a break. Since his Peace Corps stint in Lesotho, he’d had several more jobs, including co-founding a non-profit organization that helped create a shelter for children who’d lost families in the Indian tsunami, helping build the Teach South Africa organization, and being senior vice president for Operation Hope, setting up financial literacy programs in Haiti to help earthquake victims get back on their feet.
But while he was in Lesotho, he’d been told that he had the leadership qualities to be a Peace Corps Country Director. The idea had stuck with him, and in 2013, he applied for a position. When he got the call—and eventually the job—he decided to take a break because soon enough, he’d be entrenched in the management of Peace Corps’ operations in a country that had yet to be determined.
His cell phone dinged. The sound of the waves, the warmth of the breeze, the smell of the salt air quickly receded as he pulled up his email and saw a message from a close friend in the world of non-profits. His friend was on the board of a healthcare training organization in Liberia that needed someone with skills in organizational management to lead its efforts to scale up operations in response to the Ebola crisis. And do it fast. That organization was Last Mile Health. Fleming said yes, and a week later was in New York meeting with Pinjabi, the CEO, and by early October, he was on the ground in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia and the poorest city in the world.
His job: Grow Last Mile Health to respond to the disease. His first stop is the Doctors Without Borders Ebola clinic.
Fleming’s tour group moves on to a part of the clinic where he sees another side of the Ebola crisis that catches him off guard. Already reeling from his reaction to the little girl being taken from her family, he watches spellbound as a hazmat-clad doctor goes through the nerve-wracking process of undressing without also infecting himself. The tedious process takes 20 minutes and involves 32 steps. Another worker talks him through each one: undo the glove on your left hand, dip it three times in bleach water, throw it away, undo the glove on your right hand, one by one, step by step.
“I was so taken aback by the focus and dedication the doctors had to show under such extreme circumstances, and this was just as emotional as seeing the young girl taken away,” he says.
Next, Fleming needs to meet his staff on the front lines of the epidemic—those tasked with educating people in the hope they’ll never have to see the inside of an Ebola clinic. But they’re not easy to reach, since so many live in remote areas of the country’s rain forests. Last Mile Health, founded in 2007, sends people into villages to train workers how to recognize signs of disease. Before Ebola, they focused on diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. When Ebola started re-emergeing beginning in spring 2014, the training shifted to teaching workers how to identify the signs of Ebola and, most important, how to handle suspected cases. Village culture had to change—wash hands in bleach water, no shaking hands, no hugging, no touching those who die.
Knowing that Liberia is experiencing 500 new cases of Ebola per week, Fleming recognizes the urgency and importance of his agency’s contribution to the country’s response to the disease. He hops aboard a 1960s-era UN helicopter ferrying his team and others, including a UN peacekeeping force, into remote regions of the rain forest and is dropped off in the town of Zwedru, otherwise a 10-hour drive by Land Rover. He spends five days there, getting to know his team members and how they do their jobs. He learns how they not only train health care workers in Zwedru, a town of orange dirt roads and traditional grass-roofed huts. They also go out to even more remote settlements to teach residents about the disease. In one village of about 50 people, he finds they have made their own version of chlorinated water and a sign: “All strangers you are welcome and please wash your hands.” He’s encouraged by how seriously they are taking the situation.
“I felt a sense of pride that Last Mile Health village health workers were training people who would know what to do so the disease wouldn’t spread to other people,” he says. “That is amazing. We’ve given people access to information to improve their lives at a fundamental level in a village, and it was working.”
In his four months as executive managing director of Last Mile Health, the agency’s annual budget triples and its staff doubles to 250. Fleming ensures that safety and security procedures are in place, as well as an emergency evacuation plan should any worker get sick, and he hires more staff to support the health care workers in the field. By the end of December, the agency is functioning at a new, heightened level, and the Ebola crisis, which has killed over 4,000 Liberians, is beginning to ebb.
On Dec. 31, Fleming leaves Last Mile Health to begin training with the Peace Corps, which, he finally learns, has assigned him to Liberia. He’s ecstatic, even though it’s hard to say goodbye. But he knows that what he learned at Last Mile Health will help him in his next job, part of which is training volunteer teachers to spot the signs of infectious disease. Pinjabi thinks he’s ready.
“I remember writing Kevin when he was leaving us to articulate in words what he has meant to us,” Pinjabi says. “I said he’s the kind of leader that makes leaders out of other people, and having someone who can live up to their own potential is one thing, but someone who can help others live up to their potential is another level of leadership.”
Fleming returned to Monrovia in early March. As Country Director for Liberia, he’s now focused on rebuilding a nation that’s been ravaged by the Ebola epidemic. Working in partnership with agencies still operating in the country, including Last Mile Health, he’ll be doing the same kind of work—managing staff and volunteers—only on a national scale. He’s amazed that he is here, but with the little girl’s face etched in his memory, he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. He hopes he can help other little girls like her to live better lives, a goal that really began in college. “My time at Xavier is what put me on that path,” he says.
A priest and a rabbi walk onto a college campus and discover the same thing. They’re in love—with the students, with mankind, with God.
Al Bischoff, SJ, known affectionately at Xavier as “Father B,” and Rabbi Abie Ingber began an uncanny friendship after Ingber was invited to be the founder of the Center for Interfaith Community Engagement at Xavier in 2008. They call each other “Al and Abie.”
Now, when “Al and Abie” walk across campus together, they’re like magnets, drawing in students whom they’ve touched—and there are many—for greetings and hugs.
Ingber: “If I walk this campus every day, I still am unable to touch everyone. But to be in the presence of Father Al, to know if I can’t be in every corner of campus, Al is there. Between the two of us, we’ve got this campus covered.”
When Bischoff, Xavier’s longtime campus minister and residence hall adviser, met Ingber, they discovered they shared a lot of things, the most important of which was love. They began to have regular conversations where they talk about love, God and Xavier students.
Bischoff: “I came to Abie and said, ‘I want to meet with you and talk about God.’ It’s like when I walk across campus, I’m not out to convert anybody. That’s God’s work. I’m out to love and be with people and learn from them and be a help or a support to them.”
Now these two unlikely best friends get together often, usually in Ingber’s office in the Gallagher Student Center. Bischoff sits in the chair, Ingber on the sofa, and they talk.
Ingber: “We’re in a continuous conversation.”
It may seem incongruous that a Jesuit priest and a Jewish rabbi would become such fast friends and have so much to share. But it’s that incongruity that makes their love for each other and their work so powerful.
Bischoff: “I never had a real relationship with a rabbi.”
But when he was a boy, he did have a friend who was Jewish.
Bischoff: “Because he was Jewish and I didn’t know any better and I lived in a Catholic ghetto, I used to pray he wouldn’t go to hell.”
Formerly director of the Cincinnati Hillel Jewish Student Center, Ingber believed he’d be more effective at Xavier as a conduit to bring people of different faiths together in celebration rather than mere tolerance. Even people like Al Bischoff.
Ingber: “Him praying for his friend not to go to hell is so radical from Catholic teaching, which said that no less than being Catholic would prevent the friend from going to hell. Back then, Catholic teaching was to convert the Jews. Yet he was praying for him not to go to hell. That was his loving way, his loving heart.”
That’s the way it goes with these two. They share their love from the viewpoints of a Catholic and a Jew, and they find that love is their common ground. They also know their love is no joke, but it is a lot of fun, and they wish more people would talk about love more often, because the world could certainly use more love these days. And humor.
Ingber often invokes John Lennon, whom he reveres and even met once.
“John Lennon said, ‘If you dream by yourself, it’s just a dream, but if two share it, it’s a reality.’ We make Al’s dream of giving sainthood to everyone, and mine of giving love to everyone, a reality. We see it on campus.”
Bischoff greets everyone, especially students, with “Hello, saint.” He explains that he just can’t remember everyone’s name, and that if he treats people as if they’re saints, they may actually come to believe it. He believes his friend Abie is a saint.
Bischoff: “Being Catholic in the best sense means worldwide and universal. This is a faith-filled Jewish Rabbi from whom I can learn. It’s life-giving. Jesus was Jewish and said, ‘I’ve come that you may have life and live more abundantly,’ and I believe our encounters are life-giving.”
Ingber: “We see people competing to do evil, but I see Father Al leaving a trail of love and he lets me stand in his shadow. We do walk across the campus together and people come up to us. There’s beauty in being a junior member of a great tag team on campus. I am honored to toil in Al’s vineyard.”
To capture the magic of their relationship, Bischoff and Ingber agreed to a video of a conversation last fall. This one took place in the Conaton Board Room. As expected, the subject was love. Welcome to the conversation.
Students gain more than they give on Alternative Breaks trips
To the “Where the Boys Are” generation, the words Anheuser Busch might first come to mind when associating spring break with the letters A and B. But since 2001, Alternative Breaks (or AB) has offered Xavier students a get-away that gives back and leaves a greater impression than just a nice tan.
A and B are also the initials of Amanda Burns, current chair of Xavier’s Alternative Breaks executive board. One of the more memorable benefits of her four-year association with AB has been the opportunity to make new acquaintances—even furry ones. In one case—bison. “There were bison in our camp site that chased us.”
The camp—Catalina Island, about 50 miles offshore from Los Angeles—is perhaps better known as an upscale vacation destination from the golden age of Hollywood. But it’s also the home of a 42,000-acre wilderness preserve. The official mission of this specific alternative break: conservation of eco-systems, trail maintenance and beach clean-up. In other words, a lot of hard work.
“There are bison on the island because they were brought in for a movie set and just left there,” she says. It happened in 1924, as these were props from a silent film, now left as a reminder of the impact careless actions can have on an ecosystem. “Bison can’t swim, they just roam the island.” She does remember the adventure had a happy ending; “It just walked away”.
What shows no sign of going away any time soon is Xavier’s Alternative Breaks program. Now in its 14th year, AB has grown from about 30 students setting out on three impromptu-organized trips to 21 trips involving over 260 students.
While the mission is lofty—“to empower and challenge all involved understanding the relationship with the global community through direct service, education, and reflection, while encouraging personal growth, social awareness, and active citizenship”—the reality is quite simple: Get out of your comfort zone and appreciate the experience.
Those experiences over the years are as varied as humanity and often not as pleasant as communing with nature—gang prevention, immigration and poverty—in locations from Cincinnati to the Ukraine. AB has also been a robustly independent organization, entirely student-run. In 2007, staff and faculty members joined the trips to comply with Xavier’s risk management and insurance. These non-students are officially considered “trip participants,” while the team is led by two trained students.
“We take a lot of pride in being entirely student-run,” Burns says. Bringing professors along for spring break seemed a bit counter-intuitive in the beginning, but it has slowly evolved into an additional resource and may even lead to the addition of an academic component some day.
“We’re still trying to figure out how that dynamic would fit into coursework and academic credit,” Burns says.
So while the challenges an alternative breaker faces can be daunting, they are probably statistically safer than the traditional Daytona Beach bacchanal.
“We have had some unfortunate encounters between hammers and thumbs while working,” she recalls.
But bumps, bruises and bison aside, this alternative version of spring break may not be all about a week at the beach, but students do return changed in ways they least expected. It’s also not all about “doing good” but learning to appreciate that life is lived at many levels. And what surprised Burns the most in her four years of Alternative Breaks was helping herself along the way.
“It’s not necessarily that I’m going to go help you, but I needed to change the way I was,” she says.
Visit Xavier’s Alternative Breaks page to view more photos and learn more about the program.
Like a lot of entomologists, assistant biology professor Ann Ray has been bugged by a dearth of information about the valley elderberry longhorn beetle. So she joined a group of other bug-crazy biologists to find a better way to locate them than just looking in the weeds.
The valley elderberry longhorn beetle, whose Latin name is Desmocerus californicus dimorphus, is a threatened species, just a step below endangered. But there’s a catch—no one really knows how many there are.
“Since (the beetle was added to the threatened species list in 1980), it has been the subject of a lot of controversy because the larvae bore into elderberry trees,” Ray says. “Elderberry is a weed. It just grows up in all sorts of place. Since the beetle’s elderberry habitat is protected, you can’t cut down elderberry trees. But you also can’t develop.”
Property owners don’t like elderberry, but they can’t cut down the pesky weed because it’s the habitat of the longhorn. And yet determining exactly how threatened the longhorn is has been nearly impossible. Until now.
Who would have thought that the sex pheromone desmolactone could be the answer?
Entomologists use pheromones like desmolactone in special traps, where the pheromone is hung in a cross-section of cardboard. The beetles are attracted to the pheromone and hit the cardboard as they fly, falling into the trap. Only the male beetles are attracted to the traps. It’s a far more effective way to find specimens than hunting through elderberry trees.
Ray and her colleagues published an article on their discovery in the online journal PLOS One in December last year and hope it’s the answer to finding—and studying—the valley elderberry longhorn beetle. And maybe freeing up the elderberry for a much-needed trim. Read the journal article at PLOS One.
The Philosophy, Politics and the Public honors program is for students who exhibit passion as well as academic achievement. Handpicked for the program, they have a purpose that sometimes they don’t even know about. But the faculty know how to spot leaders, and they’re the ones for whom the program brings out the best.
“Our kids’ SAT scores are good, but I’m more interested in the kid who is going to benefit from the program,” says Paul Colella, the philosophy professor who was tapped by Michael Graham, SJ, to start the program 10 years ago. “I have sympathy for the kids who want to be here and who want this education—kids with passion. There are so many. I’m so proud of all of them.”
Since its founding 10 years ago, the honors program is accomplishing its goal of helping students rediscover the heart of politics by preparing them “to do policy and operate where private and public interests intersect,” Colella says.
Now the faculty is focused on building the curriculum for the new master’s program—Private Interests and Public Good. Like the undergraduate program, it’s anchored in the philosophical tradition of the Jesuits.
The curriculum for undergraduates is not for the faint of heart: sequenced courses in ethical theory, history, economics, philosophy and political science with a focus on the political process, democratic institutions and the public sphere. A senior-year capstone course and research thesis wrap up the undergraduate program.
But it’s also loaded with extras: study abroad in Paris and Brussels, a DC trip to study current legislative issues with stakeholders on Capitol Hill, well-placed internships and a network of politically connected professionals and alumni.
As the program launches into its second decade, Xavier magazine connected with some of the program’s alumni to learn how the PPP experience changed their lives and how they, in turn, are changing the lives of others. Here are their stories.
[divider] Michael Kulas ’09 [/divider]
Mike Kulas graduated from Xavier in May 2009 with degrees in history and Philosophy, Politics and the Public. Since then, he’s served his country’s government in two sometimes opposing fields: tracking the Taliban and drug shipments as an Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan, and studying potential unfunded mandates as a Congressional Budget Office intern.
He credits his PPP professors for giving him a framework for critical thinking that taught him how to evaluate public policy from a more human perspective and to approach issues from many viewpoints.
Rather than looking merely at black-and-white cost-benefit analyses, he prefers an analytical approach: “Let’s really analyze this. Who’s benefitting, how are they benefitting, what are the costs, and why?”
As an Army ROTC graduate, Kulas was assigned to work with Army Rangers and the Afghan army in Helmand Province from September 2012 to February 2013. In a region that produces abundant opium and was partly ruled by a Taliban “shadow government,” he helped the Rangers locate persons of interest so investigators could determine their ties to enemy forces.
Before the soldiers started their searches, Kulas and others would tell them how many IEDs (improvised explosive devices) had detonated in recent years on roads they might travel or the likely presence of snipers.
“I feel confident saying that my time there had an impact on disrupting counterproductive activity,” he says. “I think we disrupted some potential insurgent activity, some potential Taliban activity, and some potential movement of illegal contraband.”
In the fall of 2013, he began a Master’s in Public Policy at Georgetown University and interned in the Congressional Budget Office, where he evaluated whether proposed bills would place unfunded mandates on state or local governments. He says his PPP experience already has opened doors: Last summer, he interned with Deloitte Consulting, which offered him full-time employment after he graduates in May. “When you put that on a resumé, it makes you stand out.”
[divider] Erin McDermott ’07 [/divider]
Consultant, Deloitte Consulting, Washington, DC
Some students come to Xavier knowing they want to study politics and philosophy in a way that emphasizes public policy. Erin McDermott’s path was more circuitous.
As a member of the University Scholars program her freshman year, she shared housing with PPP students in the honors block, though she had no clear idea what she wanted to study. Program founder Paul Colella saw her potential and worked to convince her to join PPP. He and the program’s “addictive” appeal finally swayed her.
It was a good move. Her sophomore year coincided with President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign, and an internship with the Hamilton County Republican Party led to work supporting presidential appearances. She also met elected officials such as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The next summer she interned with Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Xavier alumnus who had just become House Majority Leader.
“I experienced a lot of policy and people and politics at its highest level. It was just a great summer,” McDermott says.
Before she graduated, McDermott landed a job in the Department of Education, where she worked on the No Child Left Behind Act and education policy. After Bush left office, she pursued a joint MBA/MA in government from Johns Hopkins University.
Now a management consultant for Deloitte, McDermott works with federal agencies and non-profits. She credits her PPP professors with teaching her how to think critically, write clearly, work well with others and network.
“The PPP program set me up to come work in Washington,” she says. “I can understand a lot of different perspectives and I don’t take things personally. It’s such a critical thing to be able to set up challenging meetings and integrate different ideas.”
Eight years, two graduate degrees and a few jobs later, McDermott still leans on PPP faculty for advice, friendship and perspective.
“I view them as friends, mentors and teachers,” she says. “This is an incredibly unique program, and I didn’t realize how valuable it was until I left.”
[divider] Chuma Nnawulezi ’15 [/divider]
Chuma Nnawulezi’s experiences as a black American descended from the Igbo people of Nigeria made him curious about how to resolve conflict in his own and the wider world. Teased in high school for being African, by African Americans students, he sought out a Jesuit college with the kind of program that would meet his desire to understand why. At a Xavier scholarship event with philosophy Professor Paul Colella, he learned about the PPP program and knew right away it was for him.
“He put on the first slide and said, ‘PPP is for students who are engaged in society and want to know how foundations were created and how to affect it,’” Nnawulezi says. “I said, that’s me…This program is the best thing about this University because it’s so relevant to how we shape our society. There’s nothing else like it in the US.”
Nnawulezi meets with prospective students who are interested in coming to Xavier. He’s made it his personal goal to increase the number of black, Hispanic and other minority students who not only enroll at Xavier, but also apply to PPP. “I talk to students about pursuing this program if they’re interested in the world and society and changing it.”
While still a junior, however, Nnawulezi became anxious to learn more about the part of the world known as the Global South–Africa, Asia and Latin America. But because Xavier’s academic study abroad programs don’t include those regions, he did his own search and found a semester-long study program in three major cities—Ahmedabad in India, Dakar in Senegal, and Buenos Aires in Argentina.
Only problem was, he had to pay for it himself. But with guidance from PPP co-founder Gene Beaupre, Nnawulezi put together a letter-writing campaign seeking financial support from educational organizations, the Jesuit priest of his church back home in Omaha, and finally from the Kroger Co., whose donation put him over the top of his $25,000 goal.
The trip during spring semester of his junior year was a success. He completed four courses and learned how different—and how similar—people can be in different cultures. His favorite location was Senegal—not too metro but not too backwards, either, a good mix of bucket showers and gelato.
“I’m interested in the clashing of cultures in cities and how we can do better,” he says. “I feel obligated toward black Americans to use my talents to improve their situation. I also feel some obligation toward Africa and the Global South. I needed to have experience to see if these ideas translate internationally.”
His experience overseas just added to the mix of experiences gleaned from PPP. As a sophomore, he worked supporting the campaigns of Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and President Obama in 2012, and he was a research assistant for Professor John Fairfield, analyzing the history of the historically black Cincinnati neighborhood of Avondale.
Thinking beyond his graduation in May, he expects these experiences will help him get into grad school, where he wants to study public administration and urban development. He’s set his sights high, applying to Princeton, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins.
In April, Nnawulezi learned he was selected to receive a Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellowship, which will support a master’s degree and work experience in international affairs and prepare him for a career as a US Foreign Service Officer representing the United States overseas.
“My career goal is to work for an international NGO and serve historically marginalized populations in the Global South,” Nnawulezi says. “My ideal organization would be UNESCO (United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). They use historical precedent and the need for innovation to increase the quality of life for cities in this part of the world.”
[divider] Rahiel Michael ’13 [/divider]
Before starting her first year at Xavier, Rahiel Michael attended a scholarship event to learn more about her options. What she learned changed her life. Already interested in politics, she was drawn to Professor Paul Colella’s presentation about the PPP program, but she doubted she could get in.
Her mother encouraged her to talk to him, but Michael was too shy. “I hesitated the entire night, and finally I went over and let him know I was interested, and I applied and got in,” Michael says. “Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I sucked it up and that’s the end of that story.”
Tapping into her newly discovered courage, Michael thrived in the PPP program’s close, family feel and group support. For her sophomore internship, she joined the office of Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown handling phone calls and special projects. Her work and self-confidence paid off. Just before she graduated in 2013, Brown’s office offered her a full-time job.
“I graduated on Saturday, and I was in the office on Monday,” she says.
Her new job: Constituent services, working with Ohio veterans and active duty military who have issues with the VA or the federal government.
Between her work in the senator’s office and her PPP experience, Michael developed a talent for sizing up a room and knowing just what to say and how. She’s even planning on graduate school.
“This program broke me out of my shell and made me more confident and smart. It taught me how to write properly and how to advocate for myself,” she says. “I learned so much academically as well as personally.”
[divider] Kevin Hoggatt ’08 [/divider]
For 2008 graduate Kevin Hoggatt, Philosophy, Politics and the Public wasn’t just a major. It was a calling. “It’s the reason I came to Xavier. I was really attracted to the idea of combining philosophy with the practical aspects of enacting public policy. For example, what role do ‘the people’ have in developing public policy?”
For Hoggatt, the program not only expanded his world view but also opened doors. “My junior year, I worked for Rob Portman’s office at the White House when he was the head of the Office of Management and Budget.”
That internship turned into a full-time job and, it appears, a career. Now in his eighth year on staff, Hoggatt’s been named political director of the Portman for Senate re-election campaign.
Success in the PPP program demands focus, dedication and desire—three qualities that aptly describe Hoggatt’s personal philosophy. “Only 15 or 16 students are admitted every year to keep the class sizes small,” he says. “The idea is you’re learning with the same group of students pretty much all the way through your classes.”
And for those who seek the best in themselves and others, the doors of opportunity just continue to open wider and wider. “The PPP program teaches you how to learn and question more in a search for the truth—what is good and what is right. That questioning fits in with the Jesuit ideal and is good for creating an informed citizenry.”
While politics and philosophy can make for a volatile mix, often engendering more cynicism than success, Hoggatt remains true to the original ideals that first brought him to Xavier.
“People like to complain about the state of our government or community, but it’s another thing to work to try to change our world,” he says. “I think most people engaged in public service want to improve their communities and make the world we live and work in a better place.”
[divider] Christopher Hale ’11 [/divider]
Christopher Hale identifies himself as Roman Catholic, not Democrat or Republican. That’s why he can do an internship for President Obama the year after graduating, and then become the voice of Catholicism for young Catholics. His political views skew liberal—and conservative.
“I applied for (the internship) because I wanted to be in DC, and I’m intensely interested in legislative politics, and I got the chance to do that at the White House. It’s the heart of where things happen,” Hale says. “They knew I was interested in the role of faith and public life.”
After the White House internship, Hale stayed on to work for the Obama re-election campaign with a focus on rallying Catholic voters. That experience led to his hiring by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a public policy forum based on Catholic principles. As executive director, he manages daily blog posts and writes regular columns for the Alliance and other online journals including Time magazine, CNN.com and America: The National Catholic Review. He also co-founded Millenial, an online journal for young writers with a Catholic point of view.
He’s become, in short, a voice for Catholic youth today.
“I saw it as an opportunity that despite my young age, I was able to commit to because I had a good sense of the Catholic community and their issues and how to move forward in the current political climate,” he says. “The Catholic perspective in DC is based on moral authority, not the fiscal resources it can offer politicians.”
Topics they address range from caring for the poor to right-to-life issues to health care and immigration.
Hale knows he might not have had this opportunity if not for the PPP program. It taught him how to think but also gave him an avenue for melding his faith with his career goals.
“I was attracted to PPP because it really calls for growth of public intellectualism, to go out in life dedicated to a life of social consequences,” he says. “As a Catholic, PPP was the best way for me to integrate my faith in public life. ”
The most life-changing moments for him were a trip to Rome in the summer of 2010, where they saw Pope Benedict, and a trip to Washington to work on a legislative issue with Ohio members of Congress. “That trip gave me a sense of where I’m called to be and that I want to participate in political life in the US,” he says.
“My hope is to use this great Catholic faith tradition to encourage politicians to focus first on people to make their lives better and less on the horse race issues,” he says. “It’s re-centering politics on what matters.”
READ about another PPP alumna, Betsy Hoover, and WATCH a video about the program.
If home is where the heart is, the kitchen is the beating center at least that’s what it’s like at the Spencers’ house in Cincinnati. The kitchen is the center of activity for Naimah and her mother, Vallery.
“In that kitchen I learned so much from her,” Naimah says. “I would do my homework there, share stories about my day. I shed tears in that kitchen. But there was always cooking.”
Naimah has always been enthralled with cooking. It was a passion fueled by her mother and the magic of mealtime. When they went to grocery stores together, Naimah would collect the free recipes they handed out. She even learned to read and write through cooking.
“I would sit next to my mom and write each recipe down,” Naimah says. “I didn’t realize she was just telling me what was on the back of the box. I wrote it anyway. I would say, ‘Mom, I need to save this recipe forever.’”
So it’s no surprise that it was in that kitchen that the online bakery, My Momma’s Kitchen, was born. It happened one day when Vallery decided to make a cake. She and Naimah went through the routine of cooking and sharing stories, but the cake turned out to be something else—dark chocolate cake, cream cheese frosting in the middle and decanted fudge frosting as icing—a three-layer masterpiece.
“As soon as I ate this I thought, ‘What am I doing? I could be a baker. Mom we could do this together!”’ Naimah says.
Vallery hesitated, but Naimah welcomed the challenge. With Naimah’s experience as a 2012 Xavier business graduate majoring in Entrepreneurial Studies, and Vallery’s skills in the kitchen, Naimah knew they could be a success. Together the mother-daughter team dove into the business of baking. And through trial and error, they discovered the best way to ship a cake was in a glass jar. A very small, just-the-right-size-for-dessert kind of jar. Now the Cake-in-a-Jar is their flagship item.
A pack of four begins at $35. “It’s not just a cake in a jar,” Naimah says. “It’s the best-cake-you’ll-eat—in a jar. It’s the best-experience-you’ll-have—in a jar.”
Naimah and Vallery also make cookies, brownies and traditional layer cakes. Working up to 12 or more hours a day, they keep the bakery running. And growing. My Momma’s Kitchen is on Facebook and Etsy as mymommaskitchen, and they’re thinking about bringing the business to local farmers markets and some day opening a real store.
Sometimes they also create baked gifts and wedding favors. Other times it’s just so someone can have a little taste of home. Because at the center of everything is family, home—and a kitchen.
LEARN MORE about My Momma’s Kitchen and buy your own Cake-in-a-Jar at their website.
When her husband, Aaron, was diagnosed with a brain tumor, Nora McInerny Purmort, a 2005 Xavier graduate, started recording their story on a blog. She later used it to update friends and family. By the time Aaron Purmort died last November, thousands were following their love story online, and his obituary was featured on NPR, Huffington Post and other sites.
The blog, myhusbandstumor.com, is a raw, charming, painful and often hilarious look at a marriage honed by tragedy. Her husband’s chemotherapy and surgeries, the birth of their child, a miscarriage and eventually her husband’s death—Nora Purmort shared it all, and people from around the world responded with love—on the Internet.
“The Internet is a fickle place. It usually brings out the worst in people, but by and large it has shown me what I’ve always known about people, which is that they want to be a force for good,” says Purmort. “It felt like the whole world was there for us.”
Purmort still hears from people who find themselves in the same situation she was in three and a half years ago, when their ordeal began after he suffered a seizure at work. She helps by posting stories about their fundraisers and sometimes texting total strangers.
Their son, Ralph, will grow up knowing of his parents’ love for each other, and for him, through her writings. Purmort is working on a book. “If even one woman can have something besides statistics to read, it’s worth it.”
Visit the blog at myhusbandstumor.com.