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St. Norbert College Magazine
Spring 2008 | National Champs

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Life Lessons
By Lisa Strandberg

Mary Oling-Sisay Vice president for student life Mary Oling-Sisay has devoted her existence to education—her own, and that of countless others.

It wouldn’t ring true to call Mary Oling-Sisay’s life seamless, for one major event veritably ripped her existence in two. But it is fair to say that the fabric that composes that existence and the thread that stitched it back together are spun of the same stuff. That stuff is education, which provides both the basis of Oling-Sisay’s character and the vehicle through which she has pursued her passion for impacting the lives of students for nearly 20 years.

Currently, she does so as St. Norbert College’s vice president for student life, a post she assumed last July after the retirement of Dick Rankin ’65.

Oling-Sisay's roots lie half a world away, but who in some ways has come home to a familiar faith and values she holds dear.

Born in Uganda to Catholic parents, Oling-Sisay had two strong educational influences—her homeland and her family. “Ugandans generally are very highly educated,” she said. “It’s not uncommon to find someone taking care of sheep and goats and cows speaking fluent English and able to hold a very articulate, philosophical conversation.”

Oling-Sisay’s father was a political science professor prior to entering politics, and her mother taught elementary school math. Both wanted the finest education possible for their 10 children, of whom Oling-Sisay is the eldest. In Uganda, that meant attending boarding school, starting as early as first grade. So Oling-Sisay became a student of student life as a young child. “How you develop, how you interact with other people in the dorms—it was very informative for me,” she said.

In 1987, though, tragedy struck. Oling-Sisay's father, who was serving on a commission charged with overhauling Uganda's education system, was assassinated. “At the point at which he was shot, he was holding my youngest brother on his lap,” Oling-Sisay said. Both that son and a daughter were grazed by the bullet that killed their father.

Oling-Sisay had just graduated from Makerere University in Uganda at the time and had begun work as a news anchor in a city 300 miles from her family’s village. Fearing for her safety, the family insisted she remain in the city. “For me, the single most tragic thing was I never did get to see my father’s body,” she said.

A life rent in two
With her mother struggling after the assassination, Oling-Sisay said, “I needed to grow up and be head of the family.” Her top priority: making sure that her siblings continued their education.

As with every professional position she has ever held—“When I go into a job, I leave a ‘Mary’ mark on it,” she said—Oling-Sisay filled that role more than adequately. All nine of her brothers and sisters have earned no less than a master’s degree, and many hold doctorates as well.

In 1991, with the assassination drawing attention from the Commission on Human Rights, enough fear remained that Oling-Sisay’s family sent her to Fordham University, a Catholic institution in New York City, to pursue a master’s degree in public communications. It would be her first trip to the United States.

As a former British protectorate, Uganda boasts a diverse population of Africans, Europeans and Indians. Growing up there, Oling-Sisay said, “It never really occurred to me that this whole race thing was a big deal.”

Her first clue that race mattered more in this new country: a demand at Fordham that she undergo testing for non-native speakers of English. With English as Uganda’s official language, Oling-Sisay refused to agree to the test.

There were other challenges, too, besides the simple fact that to support herself through school, she also worked full time at City University of New York.

Of the 11 students in her first course, only she and one other were black, but the two never spoke. Finally, Oling-Sisay approached her classmate, a woman in her 50s. “She said, ‘Well, we’re told that Africans don’t like African-Americans, so I was keeping my distance,” Oling-Sisay related. The two became friends, and, in fact, the entire class eventually rallied around Oling-Sisay when she received a lower grade on an exam than any of them thought just.

Since then—and even since childhood—Oling-Sisay has had a passion for fairness. She mediated for and negotiated on behalf of her siblings and other members of her traditional clan, once backing her brother’s request to receive more school spending money after he squandered a hefty portion on a T-shirt depicting the singer Madonna naked. “I will never forget the look on my conservative Catholic father’s face when he saw that,” she said.

Oling-Sisay formally exercised her legalistic mind during two years in law school but decided through her continuing work at City University that her passions lay elsewhere—specifically, in student life. That’s why she first considered the position she accepted in 2000 as director of student judicial affairs and special projects at California State University in Chico the perfect blend. “I could do student judicial affairs, use my legal knowledge, and use my mediation,” she said.

Amidst her seven years of employment there, she also studied educational leadership at the University of Southern California, completing her dissertation on retention of minority teacher candidates in a remarkable two-and-a-half years to earn an educational doctorate. That additional qualification further prepared her for the role she fills at St. Norbert.

Now, Oling-Sisay is putting her negotiating skills to use in new ways. Negotiation in any setting does not intimidate Oling-Sisay, but she does draw the line on when she’s willing to give and take. “I’m not ashamed to say that for me, two things are non-negotiable—equity and accountability,” Oling-Sisay said. “If I have to hold someone accountable, that’s my way of caring for people, and that’s the same way I deal with students.”

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