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A 30-Year Journey

A 30-Year Journey
First-year student Bailechesel “OJ” Tumechub, from Palau (an island of sunshine and palm trees), came to Scranton after hearing about it from a Jesuit priest in his country and his uncle, who is a University alumnus.

Students have been volunteering in Micronesia since the late ’80s, and, three decades later, the University has nine students from Micronesia and a long list of alumni.

It was the first snow of the season, and while most Scranton students walked through campus unfazed, one student was quite literally jumping for joy. First-year student Bailechesel “OJ” Tumechub is from Palau, an island country of sunshine and palm trees, a place where the temperature averages from 76 degrees to 89 degrees throughout the year.

“I was walking and the snow was hitting my face,” said Tumechub. “At first I thought it was rain. I thought, ‘What is this?’ When I realized it was snow, I started jumping. I put my tongue out to catch it.”

Crossing the Pacific

Searching for quality higher education, many students have made the long journey from the lush scattered islands of Micronesia in the Pacific to the Electric City. Tumechub traveled to Scranton last fall from Palau along with three other students. Four more were recently accepted from Yap Catholic High School (YCHS). They will soon decide whether to join Tumechub and eight other current students, as well as six alumni from Micronesia.

Some 30 years ago, one Scranton student made the reverse voyage. Christopher Banks ’86 was encouraged by the late Edward Gannon, S.J., University professor and founder of Special Jesuit Liberal Arts (SJLA) honors program, to serve through what is now the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). Banks chose Palau.

“When I decided to volunteer, I got an encyclopedia and photocopied the pages on Micronesia,” said Banks. “I showed a map to my family over Thanksgiving break. It took two pages just to show the distance between California and Micronesia.”

Banks accepted a volunteer teaching position at Maris Stella Elementary School for two years.

When Banks was still at Scranton, there was a national effort to recognize the 1-millionth Jesuit alumnus in the United States, with each school designating a symbolic graduate. That year, the senior class chose Banks as its Scranton graduate, and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities ultimately chose him as the national alumnus.

“When I got interviewed to be the 1-millionth alumnus, I naively thought I was going to conquer the world,” said Banks. “During those couple years in Palau, I learned so much about myself. I learned how much bigger the world is than I thought it was.”

After a short stint in finance, Banks returned to the University to work for then-University President Joseph Panuska, S.J., as his assistant and was encouraged by him to join the board of the JVC (then the JIV). While employed at the University, he spoke to Scranton students about his volunteer work. Several made their way to Micronesia to volunteer in the early ’90s, strengthening the connection between Scranton and students on the islands.

After World War II, Jesuits from the New York province began to serve in pastoral ministry in what were then the U.S. Trust Territories in the Pacific. The Jesuits also now staff two high schools, Xavier High School, on Chuuk, and YCHS, which was built in 2011.

The islands gained sovereignty in 1986, and the Compact of Free Association (COFA) was signed by several independent states in Micronesia, eventually including Palau when Banks was volunteering there. This meant that the people of Micronesia could work and live in the United States without a visa.

A New Generation

students

“The students have come in waves,” said William Burke, the University’s director of financial aid, who has maintained a close connection with students from Micronesia since the beginning, partly because of the financial intricacies involved with the COFA. He gets together with the students and offers his best Palauan dishes when he can.

“This is the next generation,” said Burke, proudly.

Recently, he gathered the students for a Palauan lunch in his office to talk to them about why they came to Scranton. Most of the students said an uncle or cousin had graduated from Scranton, or a Jesuit volunteer or priest encouraged them to apply.

Jersaleen “Jersy” Waayan, a graduate of YCHS, credited her principal and college counselor, Michael Wiencek ’12. “He shared his experiences from Scranton with us,” she said. “It made me want to come here. It made me feel like I knew Scranton already.”

“Scranton is a supportive environment where we knew our students would be welcomed and cared for,” said Wiencek. “The community I grew to love at Scranton is the type of community that exists here in Yap — everyone watches out for each other. When one person falls down, everyone comes to help them back up.”

Student Brandon Patris said that this is true. “Scranton students are welcoming. Even though they didn’t know where we came from, they were enthusiastic about learning where we came from,” he said.

An SJLA student, Wiencek worked through his college years in the Campus Ministries office. As graduation approached, the biology and philosophy major was inspired by an email from Rick Malloy, S.J., calling “adventurous” college graduates to help start up a school in Yap; he was encouraged by Patricia Vaccaro, director of Campus Ministries’ Center for Service & Social Justice, to apply. He got the job.

Although he admits he urges “the best and brightest” to apply to his alma mater, this is not a main goal as principal.

“Our major goal at YCHS is not just to have our students graduate high school, or even to get into college,” said Wiencek, “but we aim for them to get ‘to and through’ college to attain a bachelor’s degree and then return to Micronesia to help the islands develop further, especially with the impending effects of climate change and increased pressure from other countries in the region.”

The Return

One person to make that return, when Wiencek was still a baby, was Judge Carl Q. Polloi ’93. Judge Polloi, a native of Palau, was sworn in as the senior judge of Palau’s Land Court in 2007. At 32 years old, he was the youngest person to become a judge in Palau. In his nearly seven years in this position, he has decided at least 1,000 land-dispute cases while also mediating cases in the trial division of the Supreme Court.

“Being a lawyer and a judge means I have to do a lot of listening, reading and writing,” he said. “Thus, I think it is the academic training at Scranton that really helped, especially in terms of critical thinking, research and writing along with the helpful feedback from the professors.”

As a student of Banks and Matthew Brady ’84 at Maris Stella and the late Mike Toolan ’92 at Xavier High School, he knew he wanted to continue his Jesuit education and one day to return to Palau to make a difference.

Also, like Tumechub, he looked forward to seeing the change of seasons in Scranton. Judge Polloi described a nearly identical experience of his first snow, 24 years earlier.

In October 1993, “I came out of the Weinberg Memorial Library close to midnight,” wrote Judge Polloi in a recent email. “There were flurries coming down from the cold, dark sky, and they became visible by the light of the street lamp. I stood there in the middle of the brick pavement trying to catch the flakes on my tongue and open palms, but they promptly disappeared upon contact.”

Both Judge Polloi and Tumechub described the same feeling of awe at Scranton but also spoke of a deep appreciation of Micronesia.

“I tell my friends here about our language, how our society is matriarchal, how undeveloped my country is. It’s a good feeling. I feel like I’m teaching them something about my people,” said Tumechub. “But also, I’m reminding myself that I should be grateful for where I come from. I should embrace it.

See more photos and read more from our current students here.

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