A SISTER JOURNEYING WITH "DIGITAL NATIVES"
In this in this interview with Fr. Louis Bira sx, towards the coming synod of bishops, Sr. Magdalene Philip Umoh, the University Chaplain of the University of Makeni (UNIMAK)- a catholic university of the diocese of Makeni/ Sierra Leone shares with us what she considers being the challenges shaping the young generation, “the digital natives”. She shows herself as “female happy and proud” to work in a ‘male-dominated’ country and institution.
LB: Your students are “digital natives”. As many young people all over the world, their lives are shaped by the new means of communication and social media- will all their opportunities and challenges. How do you address this issue in your youth ministry?
MPU: I definitely agree that the contemporary means of communication and social media are greatly influencing young people. They confuse fact for fiction. It has increased individualistic lifestyle and a sense of community life is lost. It has equally affected their educational achievements as they spend more time chatting with friends on different applications. Their description of social media has become vague and unclear. Therefore, they use it as an avenue to ease tension and stress from the vigorous day to day life. Notwithstanding the negative impact of social media, it has however, intimated the spirit of research amongst youth. With the above mentioned challenges, Unimak has engaged her students on the proper and responsible use of social media and on the negative impact if they fail to adhere. Experts on information technology have been contacted to give public lectures on the adverse effect of this. The university has created various research groups headed by students to better engage her students in channeling the use of social media in conducting academic research. Student representative councils have organized workshops on the noxious of the above mentioned. Members of staff have equally been involved in helping to admonish students on the impact of this. Above all, students are strongly advised to avoid the use of social media while attending lectures.
LB: Sierra Leone is one of the countries in the world where teenage pregnancy is very high. How does your chaplaincy help the young students to live fairly their sexuality?
MPU: The chaplaincy has organized various workshops on the university premises whereby dignified and well-placed women in the society have been called to address our students. Through their shared and lived experiences, the young ladies have developed their self-worth and esteem. The chaplaincy also organize seminars on the negative effects of teenage pregnancy for young girls and community leaders; I go from school to school to create awareness among students; I visit churches too, to reinforce this message in a different setting, where parents and children and leaders hear my message together; in all my engagement, I ensure that there is a leader in the communities to whom the young person can run, to escape pressure from some parents and peers. Nonetheless, some mothers, because of poor status, normally send their children/wards to the street or are encouraged to have a father figure who helps in attending to their needs. Through my office, I collaborate with the school administration in identifying and awarding scholarships to students who have the academic qualification but lack the financial ability to take advantage of their God given gifts instead of being exploited. Seemingly, because of poverty, street trading is also on the increase which has equally raised the level of teenage pregnancy. Therefore, if the standard of living is raised, it will help in combating teenage pregnancy. Given the precarious situation of girl-child worldwide, I am glad Unimak encourages and prioritizes the admission of girls. In my neighborhood, I have become more aware that education spurs innovation and encourages social cohesion. The office of the chaplain is also committed to identifying and writing to individuals who are willing to give full or partial scholarships to young women who are in desperate and vulnerable situations but have the academic qualification. This has enabled the young women to appreciate who they are and have developed a good sense of self-esteem and have realized their potentials that they can actually stand respectfully in the society. Through these opportunities given to them, I am also able to see their leadership and civic engagement qualities and how resourceful they have become in managing the meager resources before them.
LB: Pope Francis wants the Synod to be an opportunity for the Church to listen to the young people. In which manner does your chaplaincy listen to the lived situations of the young people?
MPU: The chaplaincy is readily available and always at the service of the young people at all times. We have been able to listen to the lived situations of the young people namely: building credible trust among them, making the chaplaincy approachable and welcoming, giving a listening ear and advising accordingly without judging them, creating ways for dialogue, organizing activities like sport, retreats, recollection/renewal days and seminars as already mentioned. Also, the chaplaincy provides an opportunity for them to feel part of the diocesan community and they do play an active role in some of the diocesan activities such as ecumenical service, ordination of priests, diocesan feast day celebrations, and other liturgical celebrations. This activity creates a sense of belonging; deepen personal integrity and built communion, fellowship and love. They now see themselves as members of a faith community who care about their wellbeing and progress.
LB: You are a sister working in a “male-dominated” country and institution. Being a female, is it for you an obstacle or an opportunity to serve as the university Champlain?
MPU: Serving in the capacity of the university chaplain and counselor in a male dominated institution is not just an opportunity for me but it is also an avenue for evangelization and a strong force of motivation for our youth, men and women alike. As a university chaplain, counselor and a chemistry lecturer, I serve as an inspiration, a mentor, an adviser, and a resource person for many particularly the young women. Through my witness in these multiple capacities, the female students in particular, have been convinced from experience that what men can do, women can do better if not best. Through my office, many youths have come to appreciate me and see me as a credible role model. This is because my youthful and vibrant spirit enables me to understand the problems, difficulties and the challenges of the young people without judging them. However, I make myself available for them to share with me while I find creative ways in admonishing and advising them. They find confidence and trust in sharing with me. All these have become not an obstacle but rather an opportunity for both personal and communal growth and grace as our trust for each other has deepened. Finally, the blessing I have experienced is the joy of seeing our graduates gets jobs across different sectors of our national life.
LB: According to you, what should be done in your university in order to contribute to young students’ formation in vocational discernment?
MPU: I recommend that we continue in the religious activities such as retreat, seminars, days of spiritual renewal, and recollection but it should be extended to the youth in the diocesan and the national level. This will create an opportunity for the young people to mingle, share experiences and support one another. Also, the spirit of sportsmanship should be encouraged. Again, this gives the young people a sense of belonging. Quizzes and debates competitions on the Scriptures and the social teachings of the Church should be animated in the university, different parishes and in the diocesan levels. The youth should be involved in decision making as well as encouraging them to take leadership positions in the various parishes they worship since Unimak does not have a parish of its own. Formation of creative activities that brings the young people together will better contribute to the young people’s formation in vocational discernment. All of the above mentioned activities will be possible if sponsorship is given to man those activities.