Home was 8,000 miles and change away. But there was something about the UI campus that made Sr. Jackie Jean-Marie Gitonga feel like she was back in Kenya.
“I grew up on the farm and so the vast lush scenery of greenery and serene ambience of the campus felt like home to me and was a wonderful environment for study,” says the Louisiana-based national director of Pauline Cooperators for the Daughters of St. Paul USA.
“I especially loved driving back to my apartment in Orchard Downs using the Savoy area routes so that I could enjoy seeing the fields. I grew up in the central part of Kenya — farm country — with lofty dreams of probably studying abroad at some point in my life.
“The realization of UIUC happened in quite an ordinary way — my uncle Bob used to be a student at UIUC and his advisor, Bob Nelson, had been to Kenya many times. So when I completed my undergraduate studies in commerce with a major in business administration, the thought of grad school popped up in the discussions between the two Bobs.
“A review of my resume and looking at the possibilities offered at UIUC, Bob Nelson — then a professor in the Department of Human Resource Education in the College of Education — walked me through the application process and before too long, I was a master’s student in the HRE department.
“Even though now long retired, Professor Bob Nelson continues to be a longtime mentor and friend in my vocational journey, providing challenging questions to help me think of why I am doing what I am doing, and mentoring me to the places where I can help realize my gifts and true potential.
“Bob Nelson was also a great mentor in getting me acclimated in the American culture, especially when it came to the articulation and communication of my ideas or desires, because quite often I was timid in expressing myself.”
Speaking of impactful people and places, here are five others high on the two-degree grad’s list:
1. Liora Bresler. “A member of my dissertation committee and great mentor in the world of qualitative research. She fostered my ability to describe things — especially art, which has become an invaluable gift in my Catholic religious life circles.”
2. Jon Bowermaster. “I took a class on project management. He shared many practical things and one that has stayed with me is the need to make time to connect with friends, family and important people in my life by scheduling it in my calendar for the week. Keep the important things important.”
3. Steven Aragon. “A great professor and one who introduced me into the world of training and instructional design as well as diversity and appreciation of our differences in culture, ideas, etc., in our work environment. The principles I learned are things that I fall back on in my development of retreats and other training programs in our sisters’ mission of evangelization using the media.”
4. Monsignor Stuart Swetland, chaplain of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center. “He was quite inspiring in his deep knowledge and ability to teach the Catholic faith. The activities in place at the Newman Center — Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, talks, retreats, spiritual direction, mission trips, etc. — all provided a great foundation in my discernment of what I would like to spend my life doing and being.
“I discovered my desire to become the Catholic religious sister that I am today because of all the help I received at the Newman Center all along the way. St John’s Catholic Chapel remains a favorite spot that I like to visit whenever I am in Champaign-Urbana because a lot of growing happened there and I am where I am today because of what happened there.”
5. Career Development Center. “There were several programs on career discernment, research writing and practical personal development skills that as I look back, were critical in helping me navigate my grad school years and discern my path in life.
“I wanted to serve others and the workshops they gave were instrumental in leading me to discover what exactly that would look like given the skills that I had and what I had studied.
“U of I will always remain in a special place in my heart. I am eternally grateful to God who planted me in the right place where I found my life calling: to help people achieve their greatest potential, wherever they may be.”