9,000 Miles, Next Door

Nov. 10-16, 2005
9,000 Miles, Next Door
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
Students in Syracuse Diocese, Papua New Guinea, to Engage in Cultural Exchange Quick. Ask a 12-year-old where Canada is. Now ask him where Mexico is.

A project being conducted in the Syracuse Diocese’s Catholic School District won’t help students figure out the answers to those questions but it will teach them about a country in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called Papua New Guinea.

Roughly one year ago, the schools of the Syracuse Diocese began working more closely with Le Moyne College. One of the areas of collaboration between the two institutions has been the obtaining of grants.

With a little help from the staff at Le Moyne College, students at Our Lady of Pompei and St. Charles Borromeo, as well as Lakeland Elementary School in the Solvay School District will chat with their counterparts 9,000 miles away at a school in the Aitape Diocese in the island nation. The Missionary Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception run the American Catholic schools as well as the one in Aitape Diocese, Saint Anna Primary School.

The project was the brainchild of Father Charles Vavonese, the assistant superintendent of schools in the Syracuse Diocese, who had seen other models at work in New York State. Father Vavonese is also a professor at Le Moyne.

The operation, entitled Project 9000, will first offer instruction to the sixth-grade American teachers on how to best utilize technology for cross-cultural exchange. On the other side of the ocean, the grant, provided by the John Ben Snow Foundation, offers hardware to the students in Papua New Guinea in the form of computers.

According to Father Vavonese, the foundation is very interested in the program. While the foundation does not typically fund projects for religious institutions, an exception was made for Project 9000 as a public school is included. Also, although steeped in Jesuit tradition, Le Moyne is technically simply a private school.

Father Vavonese hopes American students will be able to learn not only about another culture, but specifically one that was victimized by the devastating tsunami that struck Southern Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania Dec. 26, 2004. The school itself was heavily damaged during the tsunami and some of the students who attended it were killed.

The Franciscan sisters were spared harm as they were visiting another convent during the storm. Father Vavonese noted that the teachers in Papua New Guinea are very excited about the project’s possibilities. “We’ve got a fantastic response,” the priest said.

Sister Jeanette, MFIC, of Papua New Guinea echoed Father Vavonese’s enthusiasm. “To begin with, the idea of connecting with each other across 9,000 miles seems like a miracle when it is very hard for us to connect with people, even family members, who live just a few miles away but are separated by the 5,000-foot Mt. Sumoro that rises up behind our town,” Sister Jeanette said via e-mail. The sister went on to explain that there are no inland roads and a trek to the nearest neighbor through the dense jungle vegetation can take well over one day. Father Vavonese hopes the project will enable the American students to get a more intimate and personal account of the tsunami and the disaster it wrought. “Our kids will be able to deal first hand with young people who were affected by the tsunami,” Father Vavonese said. “So in a sense, the students there will be able to teach our kids something that they could only read about.”

In addition, the students will be able to be in direct contact with a culture very different from their own. Recently, Papua New Guinea made minor headlines when over 300 people were arrested for practicing sorcery. Roughly 80 percent of the population of New Guinea ekes out a subsistence living.

“This new venture into the technological age is a huge leap for the majority of students who still do not live with electricity, let alone telephones,” Sister Jeanette said. “Their eyes are being opened to an entirely new world, so the benefit of such a cultural exchange cannot be measured in academic terms. Hopefully this exposure will stimulate a pride in themselves, their culture and the beauties of their country, as well as an interest in the giftedness of other people and places. It will also ignite a desire for further learning, sharing and continued connection with their new friends on the other side of the globe 9,000 miles away.”

The students and the sisters at Saint Anna have had to make numerous preparations for the project. According to Sister Jeanette, the eighth-grade boys at the school have been helping an electrician dig trenches for the cable and a phone line must also be brought in. The tropical environment necessitates that glass louvres are installed in order to protect the hardware from the damp ocean breezes.

Father Vavonese envisions students from both sides sending emails, instant messages and digital images of one another’s home. In addition, the American teachers can interlace their courses with New Guinea. The project offers not only a method for cross-cultural exchange, but also a way to host a theme. Using New Guinea as a subject could potentially root each topic and put it in focus. “So when students are studying the weather, they can go and find out what the weather is in New Guinea,” Father Vavonese said, offering an example. “Being in another hemisphere adds another dimension.”

As technology dissolves the barriers created by distance, Father Vavonese hopes students in the Syracuse Diocese and in Papua New Guinea will be able to share in what he sees as an emerging global village. “It will allow kids to participate in a global type of experience,” Father Vavonese said.

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