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LSU junior Claire Kendig spent the summer of 2007 volunteering at a Congolese orphanage and plans to return in 2008..

Truman Scholar Kendig’s Work Takes Her to the Congo and Beyond

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is not a nation high on most students’ lists of preferred summer travel destinations.

An estimated 5 million people have been killed since 1994 in a pair of civil wars that represent the bloodiest conflicts the world has seen since World War II. AIDS is rampant and claims the lives of countless Congolese, with the CIA World Factbook claiming 4.2 percent of the total population was infected as recently as 2003. Despite being one of the world’s largest producers of diamonds, the DRC is only now beginning to recover from the regime of former leader Mobutu Sese Soko, who bankrupted the country during his reign from 1965-97, amassing a personal wealth equaling the country’s national debt and being named the third-most corrupt leader in world history by Transparency International.

But reasons like these are precisely why LSU junior Claire Kendig left for Lubumbashi – a town in the southernmost Congolese state of Katanga – last summer to work at an orphanage.

For Kendig, who announced to her parents at the age of seven that she wanted to dedicate herself to public service after seeing the abject poverty portrayed in an exhibition of Haitian paintings, the trip was part of a natural progression that the Shreveport native hopes will take her to Doctors Without Borders and on to the World Health Organization.

“I would like to change the way aid is given around the world,” Kendig said. “I think that so many problems, great and small, stem from a lack of respect for our fellow man. When our ethnocentrism causes us to disrespect people before we even get to know them, then we’ve lost a chance to enrich our lives. It’s not easy to humble yourself and truly get to know a culture, its languages, and its values, but it is imperative for us to do so if we want to compete and thrive in this increasingly globalized world.”

The average summer day in Lubumbashi is 80 degrees and dry, pleasant enough working conditions for someone used to the heat and humidity of a Louisiana summer. Kendig began learning French soon after seeing the Haitian art display, so the language barrier was not an obstacle in the former Belgian colony. What did provide a measure of culture shock were the children themselves – or, rather, their reason for being in the orphanage.

 

Kendig enjoys some downtime at the orphanage.
“I didn’t know before I went that most of the girls would be war refugees, and I really don’t have any personal experience in talking to people who have experienced war on such a personal level,” Kendig said. “That was very difficult.”

But Kendig quickly found her footing at the all-girls orphanage with the aid of a number of patient residents who helped acclimate her to the Congolese way of life.

“I taught English, kept stock and inventory of our supplies, took the girls to the doctor’s office, and went to the pharmacy and gave the girls their medicines,” she said. “For fun, I taught them how to make chocolate chip cookies, and they taught me how to make bread.”

Upon her return to Louisiana, Kendig set her sights on a prestigious Truman Scholarship and submitted with her application a draft of a proposal to overhaul the Peace Corps. Her suggestions – admit more people from a wider array of backgrounds and do a better job of teaching them about the countries they will be working in before they leave – impressed the panel at the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation enough to name Kendig a finalist for the national award and bring her in for a face-to-face interview.

Then came the agonizing wait to see if her interview impressed the judges enough to name her among the winners.

“I was planning to check their Web site the day they were going to announce the winners, and I was waiting for after a class to find out,” Kendig said. “A friend asked me how I would find out, so I went to their Web site and a link had replaced the title, which until then had just said winners would be announced ‘soon.’ I clicked on the link, and saw my name on the list.

“I keep checking to make sure they haven’t taken my name off,” she laughed.

But what Kendig read was not a typo. She was one of the 65 national recipients of the Truman scholarship and the fourth at LSU since 2003.

“It means so much to me,” said Kendig. “It means that this prestigious organization recognizes that I’m more than a hippy, leftist, tie-dye wearing, bleeding heart liberal – although maybe I’m that too – and that I really have the experiences, intellect, and ability to translate my beliefs into action.”

In addition to being both a Truman and a Goldwater scholarship recipient, Kendig is also a member of the Louisiana Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (LA-STEM) program at LSU. Though she initially doubted she had what it took to win the Truman scholarship, Kendig’s LA-STEM counselors encouraged her to apply, believing she represents everything LA-STEM and the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation stand for.

“Claire Kendig is what the LA-STEM program is all about,” said Isiah Warner, vice chancellor of the Office of Strategic Initiatives. “Not only do we produce scholars, but also future leaders.”

It helps that this “future leader” already has her future mapped out: graduate school, two years of residency at a charity hospital, and on to work for Doctors Without Borders.

“They do a great amount of good to help in the greatest conflicts of the world,” Kendig said. “They do a significant amount of work in war-torn areas.  Their current force in Congo is over 3,000.  It’s one thing to protest the Iraq war by buying a witty bumper sticker or T-shirt, but it’s completely different to be on the ground in Iraq, helping those who have been injured by the conflict.”

Before she applies for Doctors Without Borders, residency, or even graduate school, Kendig has one piece of unfinished business – a second trip to Congo this summer, where she will once again teach English to potential future Congolese leaders who would otherwise be denied or steered away from secondary education.

“I told family friends that I was going to Congo for the summer and they delighted in reminding me that some day I’d have to get a real job,” Kendig said. “Evidently the Truman Foundation thinks I’m doing a good job already, and it’s my hope that I’ll never have to settle for less than my dreams.”

Damian Foley | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Spring 2008


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