Eratus Sirleaf, a business administration major, was in class one day when Colonel John Church Jr. noted his accent and surname and asked if he was any relation to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia.
“I’ve been there,” said Church, “so I could tell from the rhythm and cadence of his speech that Eratus was from Liberia.”
When Sirleaf explained that the president of Liberia was, in fact, his aunt, Church, in turn, explained his own connection to the West African country.
Church, a colonel in the Marines and assistant professor in the English/Communication Department, was part of a U.S. Marines team designated to teach the embryonic Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) the importance of positive military relations among soldiers and the people they are to protect and serve.
According to Sirleaf, “I was amazed when I learned this. I saw pictures in Mr. Church’s office of him in Liberia during army training. He told me he wanted to give me a present for my aunt, so he gave me a personal note along with an Immaculata T-shirt. He asked me to take a picture of her and bring it back to him.”
Sirleaf and his little brother first came to America in 2002 to join their parents who had arrived in the U.S. on political asylum 10 years earlier. He remembers how strange it was to enter the 12th grade and receive textbooks of his very own. He was so incredulous, in fact, that he called his friends back in Liberia to tell them. Though Liberians strongly believe in education and love to learn, books are very expensive; some schools have only a handful that must be copied and shared among teachers.
“I like everything about the U.S.,” Sirleaf said, including easily available Internet access. “I’m getting an education and good work experience, but I do miss the members of my family who are there, and I miss my homeland.”
Sirleaf’s aunt is the 24th president of Liberia and the first elected female head of state in Africa. In 2011, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, all three honored for their nonviolent work to promote peace, the rights of women, and the spread of democracy. Sirleaf’s father, Kendrick Sirleaf, was with his sister in Norway when she received the prize, and his family’s tribal group, the Vai tribe, held a festive celebration for her attended by close to 700 people.
“Her winning was very exciting,” said Church, “because she won the Nobel during the semester. I think it really broadened some of the other students’ horizons.”
Though Sirleaf does not know his aunt particularly well, he remembers her telling him that America is a land of opportunity, and encouraging him to do his best. “If you follow the good side, it will pay off for you,” he said.
Sirleaf usually returns to Liberia for a few weeks every December; in 2011, he attended his aunt’s second-term inauguration, presenting her with the Immaculata T-shirt and Church’s note. He brought back a photo and other items from the event, including a hat with his aunt’s picture on it that he gave to Church.
“So many students from abroad, including all the African Sisters who come here, invest four years being educated at Immaculata,” said Church. “That’s a tremendous compliment and something that every American-born student at IU should understand and appreciate.”
Sirleaf deeply values his IU education, especially the way his professors have guided and nurtured him. As a freshman in a theology class with Sister Peggy McDonald, IHM, S.T.D., Sirleaf was unaware he was supposed to purchase a book for the course. Before he could do so, Sister Peggy took him to her office and gave him a brand-new one. “She is like my spiritual mother,” he said, and the only person he was close to during his first semester.
When he speaks of Colonel Church and the help he received from him in a business writing course, Sirleaf said, “He gave me two things—the Writing Center, and myself.”
Sirleaf will graduate in December and would like to get his M.B.A. and eventually open his own business in Liberia. Though he’s not sure what kind of venture that will be, he wants to offer something unique, goods or services not widely available there, such as IT or textbooks—a fitting dream for a young man who knows how precious such resources are for those who love to learn.