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Bridge Builder

BY CATHY MADISON

Student Senate President Latifah Kiribedda '12 leads a life of a global citizen.

Latifah Kiribedda '12 nurtured many dreams as she studied science at Nabisunsa Girls' School in Kampala, Uganda, but attending a college in the United States wasn't among them. Only when her instructors suggested she apply to the highly competitive U.S. Achievers' Program (USAP) did she undertake the often overwhelming process of writing essays, completing forms and visiting the U.S. Embassy to learn about our educational system.

Of 300 applicants, she was one of only nine accepted and three who came to the United States to pursue their degrees.

A public health major and women's studies minor, Kiribedda is president this year of the Student Senate, after serving for three years and co-chairing its diversity committee. She is also involved in the LEAD Team, International Students' Association, Women of Color and the Muslim Students' Association. In 2010, she helped organize and participated in a panel discussion related to "Breaking the Veils: Women Artists from the Islamic World," a traveling art exhibition featuring the work of Muslim women artists.

Kiribedda's enthusiastic energy spills outside campus boundaries. She mentors middle-school students, is a certified HIV instructor and spent January conducting community health assessments at Ilula Lutheran Hospital in Tanzania. She plans to attend graduate school and pursue a public health career as a global citizen.

What made you choose St. Kate's? Of course I looked at "big name" schools, because other USAP students had gone there, and that's what we knew. Me, at Harvard? So exciting. But then I came across this all-women's college, and when I read the story of Mother Antonia McHugh, I was pretty amazed.

Here was a sister in the 1900s who tells the bishop she wants to build a church on top of a hill. The bishop says no, you have to build a small chapel at the bottom. No, she says — a church, on top. Then he goes to Rome, and by the time he comes back, she is way up with her plan for Our Lady of Victory Chapel, as big as a church, up on the hill. She was a stubborn woman, and I could identify. I have a feeling I would have done the same. Because I'm interested in genuine leadership and serving others, I was really moved by that story.

As a Muslim, were you concerned about fitting into a Catholic school setting? I didn't know what to expect. Religious faith is a big part of my life, part of who I am. But everyone here was very hospitable, and I did not once feel that there is anything wrong with being Muslim. I prayed in the interfaith room on the second floor of Campus Ministry. I got actively involved in the Muslim Student Association. I found my own place and my own home, and it wasn't just being with Muslim students.

It's incredible to be in an environment where people are curious and want to learn, where people are supportive and appreciate who you are as a person.

Did you discover similarities between the two religions? Many times people do not pause to think about those things, because of the media frenzy and concentration on the ugly things that are done by people who claim to be Muslim. Here at St. Kate's, we have strong values of social justice, of caring about your neighbors. That's what Islam is about. One of the five pillars of Islam says, "We show concern for and give to the needy." There is also community service and doing things for the sake of God. There is fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, just like many Christians who fast during Lent. A lot of the values and social teachings are similar — that's why I fit in so well here. But there are not so many mosques around, so that's been hard.

What are your plans for the student Senate? I think about it in two ways: internal goals and external goals. I want to create a team of people who are invested in a mission. Everyone has a different agenda, but we all want to see a better St. Kate's. I intend to do the inside work to make people aware of their strengths and how they work with others, and then define our visions and goals.

There are so many issues — parking, the environment. We really can't accomplish everything. We need to smartly prioritize what is doable, and what just needs better communication. I see myself as a guide and facilitator, also as a person who challenges students to narrow the list to what is realistic. I'm very big on goal-setting. By the time the year starts I should have about five tangible and smart goals that can be measured, so at the end of the semester we can say: "This is what we did and by how much we did it."

Is diversity on your agenda? I'll advocate for an inclusive campus environment for all students — students of color, those with disabilities, those with social, economic or marital status issues. A lot of these issues people tend to overlook. If diversity comes down to just minority groups and race, that causes tension. Part of my vision is that we're all in this together. Every student has a voice. Everyone can be active in these issues without being experts in diversity.

Has your college experience affected your views on women's rights? I'm all for feminism and women having equal opportunities, but I think there's a big misunderstanding. Emancipation in the U.S. may mean becoming the CEO and working nights. But emancipation also means being able to have a role as a mother, being home with the children. This can be true in any country. We must respect individual choices and cultural values. For instance, some Muslim women choose to veil, and that's something I admire.

Have you encountered any surprises in American culture? The food. Everything has cheese in it! And the way people relate was a big shocker. People walk too fast. You get on a bus and no one talks to anybody. They have iPods in their ears. Some stare at you. I feel the pressure of being different, which I never felt before. It was confusing to me until I learned about the deep history of race in this country, and then that sense of distrust made sense. American society in general is very secluded and individualistic, which I found disturbing. So I decided to be part of the solution by getting active in student government.

What are your long-term career plans? I need to have a mission in life. It's not enough to do work and go to an office when you have the capacity to influence things on an international level. My dream job is to be the African regional director for the World Health Organization. It's my passion. I know what that's about, and I can best be of service that way, with my skills and perspectives.

How did your internship in Tanzania influence you? Going out into a very rural community where I didn't speak the language, I saw things I'd never seen. I was really, really shocked. I saw people who walked long distances to get medical care. A newborn baby died right in front of me. I saw a woman holding her intestines in her hand. I cried. It was life-changing, and it affirmed my goals for the future. At the end of the day, my calling is in Africa. Africa has more need than ever.


Freelance writer Cathy Madison is currently writing a memoir about her military father and the legacy of war.

 
Latifah Kiribedda '12 Latifah Kiribedda '12

Latifah Kiribedda '12 sees many similarities between the social teachings of Muslims and Catholics.
PHOTO BY DAWN VILLELA