“I’m Nowhere Near Understanding What I’ve Seen or Learned” Alums tackle Arabic language study — and more — in UAE, Oman, and Jordan
St. John Paul II High School grads Victoria Sirois, ’13 and Peter Hartnett, ’15, have learned first-hand the life-changing impact of encounter. Sirois and Hartnett share 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. During her sophomore year, Sirois signed up for Arabic study and later was selected for The William Jefferson Clinton Scholarship at the American University in Dubai. 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. 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.” 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 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. Hartnett sees his experiences through the lens of his Catholic faith and the Church’s relationship with Islam. “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. 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.” 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.