Women of the world unite
An ELCA scholarship program helps Cal Lutheran live out its mission of educating global citizens.
Under normal circumstances, recipients of an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America college scholarships for international women meet once a year in Chicago to network and share ideas. Everyone has a plan to help their home countries, said Naomi Mbise, a third-year Cal Lutheran student from Tanzania.
The cancellation of recent gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped ELCA International Women Leaders from forging bonds. Mbise, for example, is partnering with two 2021 graduates on a proposal to help low-income girls in Cameroon and Tanzania to finish high school and pursue their dreams.
“I don’t know how we formed a connection, but we just still did,” said Mbise, referring to her “sisters” from Cameroon who attended St. Olaf and Concordia colleges as part of the scholarship program. Even though their home country and Tanzania are thousands of miles apart, “we all share the passion that we want to see women in our societies being able to access formal education and to have opportunities for international education, as we did.”
In the last four years, Cal Lutheran has welcomed young women from Palestine, Tanzania and Poland under the International Women Leaders (IWL) program, which is one of the tangible benefits of the university’s affiliation with the ELCA. The Chicago-based organization identifies scholarship candidates through Lutheran churches in low-income countries. After a competitive application process, it contributes $20,000 per student per year plus expenses for things like books, visas and flights home.
With a considerable balance remaining for students, including food and housing, the university’s investment is still greater.
“We have to be a part of this,” Dane Rowley, Cal Lutheran’s director of international admission, told himself. The IWL program offers “a layer of support for students that no other scholarship program provides,” he said, making the investment worthwhile.
The first IWL scholar at Cal Lutheran was a Palestinian from Jerusalem, Tamar Haddad, who graduated in 2021 with a degree in music. With her can-do, entrepreneurial spirit, she has modeled in many ways what the IWL program is about.
While a Cal Lutheran student, she wrote and published a book, "The Future of Palestine: How Discrimination Hinders Change," inspired by a friend’s death at the hands of male family members. She participated in Model United Nations and spoke at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, on a panel organized by the World Lutheran Federation. Working with Cal Lutheran’s Hub101 startup incubator, she launched a leadership training program for Palestinian youths.
Haddad currently works in Ferndale, Washington, as a Lutheran youth minister and children's choir director. A self-described global citizen whose “comfort zone” is international exchange, she travels each year to teach leadership skills to 15-20 high school students in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. It’s one way to have an impact back home, she said.
“I see the change in them,” Haddad said. “They have amazing projects. Just four years ago, mental health wasn’t a thing in Palestine. Nobody could talk about it. Their projects were on mental health, the environment — so many good projects.”
Haddad and Mbise became fast friends and then roommates following the Tanzanian student’s arrival in 2019. Mbise is pursuing degrees in political science and theology and Christian leadership, and co-founded an African Students Association on campus. A third scholarship recipient, Julia Raszka of Poland, is now a freshman majoring in theater and psychology. Going forward, the university anticipates bringing an IWL scholar every two years to keep up the peer mentorship.
“Here, you make friends wherever you go,” said Raszka, drawing a contrast between Cal Lutheran’s residential campus and Polish universities designed for commuters. “You spend all day with them. You bump into somebody and you go somewhere else and you meet somebody new. So it's like this big community and, personally, I love that.”
Since childhood, Raszka always wanted to be an artist on a stage. In southern Poland, she sang with a gospel choir and played piano and clarinet before discovering a community in musical theater. Through her Lutheran church, she learned of the opportunity to attend an ELCA college in the United States on a full scholarship. That was exciting news even though the name of the program, International Women Leaders, made her wonder if it was the right fit.
“Oh, a leader,” she said to herself. “OK.”
Eventually, she recognized that she’d begun developing leadership skills as a stage manager and performer. The Young Life club has asked her to lead Bible study next semester. She hopes to use her musical theater skills on returning to Poland, perhaps by coaching young performers and creating plays of her own.
Cal Lutheran’s interim pastor, the Rev. Mark Holmerud, said he sees Mbise and Raszka having a profound impact at Cal Lutheran.
“They are making connections with people who have no idea what life is like outside of California and much less the United States,” he said. “They’re having an influence on the ways that these students see the world.”