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Extraordinary journeys, begun
in distant locations, converge at UConn
(April 26, 1999)

hen Martin Sybblis recalls his childhood in Jamaica, he remembers snapshots of beauty and poverty - children without shirts or shoes; palm trees; domestic animals wandering in the road; corrugated metal roofs; blue skies; burst pipes; violence in the night; bullet holes in the front gate.

"When you know others, you begin to understand yourself better."

Trevor Tebbs
Honors Community Associate

And he remembers a tie-dyed UConn tee-shirt that his mother brought home to Kingston from Connecticut.

"I was maybe 10 years old when my mother brought me that shirt," he says. "I had no idea what UConn was or where it was. I just liked the shirt. I wore it until you could not wear it any longer."

Sybblis "journey" from the ghetto of Kingston to the University of Connecticut began, he says, with that shirt.

Sybblis was one of a number of students from foreign countries who told their stories at a seminar last Wednesday at the Honors House. The seminar was the latest in the Journeys series introduced by Trevor Tebbs, honors community associate in the new South Campus honors complex, earlier this year. It attracted a group of nearly 40 students.

The goal of the series, Tebbs explained, is to learn about other people. "When you know others, you begin to understand yourself better," he told the group. "Journeys is about sharing, questioning and wondering. It's about understanding how you got here, why you got here, what it took to get here."

While each of the stories was unique, there were persistent themes. Sybblis, for instance, surmounted tremendous obstacles to reach UConn and the promise of higher education.

"I lived with my grandparents when I was a boy," says Sybblis. "We lived in the ghetto, but my grandparents were very strict. They made me study hard."

Hard academic work, in turn, produced exceptional grades. And grades made it possible for Sybblis to enroll in a private school where his friends included the sons of reggae legend Bob Marley. Ultimately the trajectory that commenced with his grandparents' insistence that he do well in school led him to UConn, when he and his mother eventually moved to the United States and became permanent residents.

"I still didn't know anything about UConn when we came here," he recalls, "but there were references to the university everywhere, and I remembered that shirt my mother brought to me."

It was the dead of winter, though, and Sybblis knew no one. "I was cold and lonely," he said. Despite the poverty in which he had grown up, "I wanted to go home."

And he might have done just that had his first roommate, a native of Portugal, not been a reggae fan. "I walked into my dorm room and he had a big poster of Bob Marley on the wall."

Sybblis took it as a sign. He got through his first semester and his first New England winter by listening to Marley's music like a mantra. "The words are very powerful," he says. "They are about struggling, fighting, and finding meaning."

Determined to succeed
Other stories were no less inspiring.

War set Mabel Obidoa's trajectory. In the civil strife of Biafra, her family lost nearly everything - her father's business, their home, their savings. The one thing she did not lose was hope.

"Three of my brothers and I were all old enough to go to college," she remembers, "but the family had nothing. And in my country, boys get preference over girls."

Despite staggering odds, Obidoa was undeterred. She was determined to make her own way. Enrolling in school, she earned the kinds of grades that attracted the attention of four Nigerian universities, but Obidoa still had no money. So, she worked for several months, until she had saved enough to pay her first semester fees. Beyond that, the future was unclear.

One day, she saw her name posted on a bulletin board at the university. On the strength of her enrollment grades, she had qualified for a scholarship that made it possible for her to complete her undergraduate education and become a teacher.

Today, she is the mother of six and the principal of a Nigerian school with more than 1,200 students. Last year she received a one-year grant to study gifted and talented education at UConn. She hopes to apply what she is learning to a problem she has encountered with increasing frequency in her homeland - brilliant students who drop out of education to join violent gangs of youths.

A sense of adventure
For Ruben Mamani-Paco, the journey may have begun when he was 11 and his family moved to Costa Rica. "That was a big change," he recalls. "There was a real sense of adventure."

Or it may have begun centuries ago, when Spaniards invaded his native country, Bolivia.

The son of a minister and a nurse, Mamani-Paco first came to the United States in 1991. With the help of a scholarship, he was able to complete his undergraduate degree.

In his education, he envisions the tools with which he hopes to make changes when he returns home.

A native American, his ancestors inhabited Bolivia long before the Spanish invasion. It is, however, the descendants of the Spanish who dominate the economy in Bolivia, a country with tremendous poverty.

"I want to do something to fight the poverty," Mamani-Paco says. "Education is an opportunity to make a change."

Exploring the issues
The students who attended the program, initially reticent to participate, eventually found themselves drawn into a spirited dialogue that explored such issues as gender, economy and politics.

"It was a good program," said Danielle McGrath, a sophomore from Waterbury, who spent several weeks in Russia as an exchange student during high school. "You learn a lot from programs like this that let you meet people from other places and compare their experiences to your own."

"This more than met my expectations," said Bill Detlefsen, a sophomore from Plainville. "I was expecting a more structured program. This was much more interesting. It really makes you think about the many paths people take as they go through their lives. If this program were offered again, I'd attend again."

Jim Smith