UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Summer 2008
Pupil Power


 
Joshua Hamilton Hiermona Tesfamicael Summer Buckley Gyno Pomare

[comeback kid]

The Positive Thinker

His own health on the mend, Joshua Hamilton turns his attention to helping others.

by Kelly Knufken

Illustration by Christina Ung

Joshua Hamilton was supposed to die.

The odds of beating the deadly brain virus he contracted were put at 20 percent. His chances of coming out of it essentially fine, as he has, were estimated at only 2 percent. But Hamilton is quite an overachiever, and that apparently extends to his health.

To back up a bit, the first indication he had that something was really wrong was in the summer of 2004. That’s when he collapsed as he tried to get up from his study desk. An ambulance trip to the emergency room was followed by weeks in the hospital, paralysis, Parkinson’s-like shakes and a couple years of recovery.

“I lost control of my hands. I lost control of my fingers, my facial expressions and my voice. I could only talk in a whisper,” Hamilton remembers. “It was intense.”

It was six months before doctors figured out he had West Nile virus, likely contracted in Utah, where he’d been preparing for a mission abroad with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It took a year and a half of rehabilitation and therapy before he started to come out of the worst of it. The virus sapped his energy for all but a few hours a day.

But Hamilton, back in San Diego during his recovery, put those hours to good use by speaking about his illness at meetings and conferences.

“I spent a lot of time sharing my story and listening to other people’s stories,” he says.

That likely provided good training for his current volunteer work at Rady Children’s Hospital, which he began a few years ago when his illness abated. He goes to the Hematology/Oncology Care Center every Wednesday and plays games, reads or just sits and watches a movie with the kids.

“A lot of them don’t have hair, they may have staples in their head or incisions. Some children are actually there for years. It’s tough,” he says, his voice quieting. “But you know, you kind of get over that, and you get the opportunity to see them have fun.”

It was the support and love he felt when he was fighting West Nile virus that spurred Hamilton to make a connection with these children who are fighting for their own lives.

“When I was sick, so many people did so many great things for me,” he remembers. “I just want to do something of that nature (for others). It was amazing how much support I got. I love doing it, and those kids are just so wonderful, and they really fill my life with something positive.”

With no real cure for his own illness, his doctors’ strategy of treating his symptoms with L-dopa began paying off a year and a half after Hamilton fell ill. Everyone noticed the changes when the medication finally reached the right level.

“My posture was better, I started to talk a little louder. One day I was able to just sit down at the piano and not have a problem at all. My father looked at me, and he just said, ‘You don’t look like the same person anymore.’ After that point, I just got better and better exponentially.”

When he finally started to come out of this deadly illness, he says, “I was very blessed and very, very lucky.”

Now Hamilton’s life has returned to normal. That’s not a given for the West Nile form of encephalitis — a brain hemorrhaging disease that usually causes irreparable brain damage. The only lingering problems he has are severe headaches.

There have been unexpected positives. When he needed to get control of the tremors in his hands, he turned to the piano. And learned to play it by ear.

And his near-death experience helped him learn to take the focus off himself. He says the toughest part of his illness was seeing the toll it took on his friends and family.

“It really helped me to take the whole situation … and focus on others and keeping their spirits up and trying to be in a good mood and learning not to be so focused on myself, and to appreciate others and what I could do for others.”

An Eagle Scout, Hamilton now juggles serving as Alcalá Club president with his volunteer work and leadership of several fraternity committees, among other commitments.

“I guess I’ve always been busy,” he says. “My parents filled my life with a lot of things that were worthwhile, and I’ve had a very structured life — gotta go to school, lessons, practice. It’s been a full life and a lot of opportunities, that’s for sure.”

What drives him to succeed? Well, as the oldest of eight, he’s clearly aware of his role as firstborn.

“It’s been a challenge,” he says. “When you have so many eyes on you, it’s a lot of pressure to not screw up, you know?”

When it came time for college, Hamilton chose USD over Harvard — in part because of the accommodation of his mission schedule. That wasn’t an easy decision for someone who had wanted to be a lawyer since he was 5. But he’s learned a lot about life in the years since he started at USD — including a leave that was to be for his mission, but turned into recovery time. He’s decided a law career may not be the best fit. A senior in the fall, he’ll later go to graduate school and likely pursue an MBA.

“I want to do something that’s worth something — something of value that I can hold myself to the highest standards. I want to give of myself whatever I have to give to improve whatever situation or organization I’m in — something to make a real difference.”

If providing an up-close-and-personal look at grace under pressure counts, Hamilton’s already there.

Joshua Hamilton Hiermona Tesfamicael Summer Buckley Gyno Pomare

 

[overdrive]

The Go-Getter

Hiermona Tesfamicael scarcely has time to breathe. And that’s just the way she likes it.

by Julene Snyder

Illustration by Christina Ung

Later, there’ll be plenty of time for fun. Not so much right now, but sometime in the future there may well be enough unscheduled minutes to watch an entire television show. And yes, one day it could very well come to pass that Spring Break might involve a tropical paradise. Perhaps a time will come when eight hours of sleep will not sound like an impossible dream.

Someday, maybe, but not now. And probably not next year either. Or the year after that. Could be the case in three years or so, but no promises. It’s just that at this moment, and for the foreseeable future, Hiermona Tesfamicael ’09 is busy.

For one thing, she’s actually supposed to be Class of 2010, but Tesfamicael — a double major (finance and business administration) with a minor in accounting — is in overdrive, on track to graduate a full year early.

“My friends always say, ‘You always walk so fast, and every time I see you, you never have time to talk!’” The 20-year-old shrugs. What can you do? “But when I’m studying, I do keep my AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) on. I’m a good multi-tasker. I keep in contact with my friends that way.”

A strikingly pretty young woman, Tesfamicael’s smile lights up her face. While her days at USD have been jam-packed, she relishes exceeding the challenges she’s set for herself, not least because of the purpose that powers all her hard work. “I want to help my family back home,” she says with quiet certitude.

Though Tesfamicael was born in Queens, New York, her mother and father come from Eritrea, an East African country bordered by Sudan and Ethiopia. “My parents came to New York in 1979 with nothing, and they worked from the ground up.” Each of them left large numbers of siblings behind in the troubled country. Tesfamicael has more than 100 Eritrean cousins — many of whom she got to know over an extended visit one childhood summer — and their living situation in the politically volatile region worries her. A desire to ensure her extended family’s well-being, coupled with the example provided by her parents, is what fuels her breakneck pace.

“When you come from nothing, it can’t get any worse,” she says. “The only place you can go is up, and that’s pretty much how my folks saw it. They took every opportunity they saw in America to make their life better. That’s why I want to help back home, because family is all you have.”

She remains extremely close to her parents — who live in Chula Vista, Calif. — and sees her father, a radiation therapist, and her mother, a nurse, as role models. “The first thing they did when they got established was send money back home,” she recalls. Tesfamicael hopes to get to the point where she too is helping those relatives as much as she can. The need among her Eritrean kinsmen is great: for homes, for better amenities, for an education, for a better life.

But first, she’s got a few other things on her plate. For example, in addition to 19 units worth of classes she’s taking this semester, she’s got tutoring, lab hours, working at the United Front Multicultural Center and serving as president of the Resident Hall Association. “I’ve been a hard worker since kindergarten,” she says. “I always looked up to my parents and would see them working hard, so I work hard too.”

In high school, Tesfamicael took Advanced Placement classes in addition to belonging to “countless organizations” such as the ASB, the Black Student Union and MEChA. She was vice president of her junior class, tutored younger students through the YMCA and tutored her peers in algebra.

“I love interacting with people,” she says, flashing that killer smile.

“I like to give them the go-getter attitude that our family gave us.

I have a passion for working with people.”

That’s a sentiment that’s soundly seconded by Rick Hagan, USD’s director of housing. He gets together with Tesfamicael every week in her capacity as president of the Residence Hall Association. “I always look forward to it,” he says. “She is so positive — even with her course-load and the seriousness with which she takes academics — that at the end of our meetings, I always wind up being more energized than before.”

Tesfamicael wound up at USD because of the communal environment and small class size. Though she lives with a pair of roommates in the Bahia apartments, it wasn’t necessarily her parents’ first choice for her to live on campus. “My mom definitely wanted me to stay at home,” she recalls. “It was hard for my mom and dad to understand why I wanted to live on campus.” But in truth, she had good reason. “For one thing, I don’t drive. I have my job here, my home here, my classes here and my friends here. I don’t need to go off-campus. And if I do, my friends and family will take me.”

While she spends much of her rare downtime with family, she can foresee a time in the future when she’d enjoy traveling. Of course, there’s also grad school to be considered — she plans to pursue an MBA — and then a career, and perhaps, one day, a family. Though she says her dream job would be in human resources for a medical or educational firm, she also thinks that it would be fun to open a restaurant with her mom, serving traditional Eritrean food. Oh, and being a CEO is also at the top of her wish-list for the future.

One thing for certain is that right now, for Hiermona Tesfamicael, there’s no time for chit-chat. She’s got to get moving if she’s ever going to finish all she needs to do. There will be time to rest later.

Much later.

Joshua Hamilton Hiermona Tesfamicael Summer Buckley Gyno Pomare

 

[help wanted]

The Darfur Girl

Summer Buckley takes an active STAND on campus against genocide.

by Ryan T. Blystone

Illustration by Christina Ung

If you didn’t watch your step, you might trip over a dead body. Prone forms were sprawled on the grass in front of the Hahn University Center, causing passers-by to tread carefully. Although these students were, in fact, still breathing and not actual casualties of the strife in Darfur, each one represented 10,000 of those who have lost their lives since 2003.

The startling spectacle was Summer Buckley’s idea. The junior sociology major coordinated a “die-in” event to raise awareness on campus about the Sudanese government’s sponsoring of attacks against its own, resulting in 400,000 deaths and displacement of 2.5 million (according to www.standnow.org). Buckley formed a USD chapter of the national Students Taking Action Now: Darfur organization last October.

In addition to the symbolic war casualties, the die-in also featured smiling young girls performing a traditional Sudanese dance in native dress and women from the Southern Sudanese Community Center in City Heights serving their native cuisine.

“The die-in was the most amazing event because it also looked at the culture, beauty, dances, music, food — and then it looked at death,” Buckley says. “When people see the beauty, it’s encouraging and it shows it’s just not Africans being killed, it’s an entire culture.”

Nearly four years ago, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell defined the Sudan violence as genocide. Buckley’s first exposure came a year later, when she watched the film Hotel Rwanda, the story of the 1994 Rwandan genocide told by of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who sheltered more than 1,200 civilians from rebel forces. Actor Don Cheadle, who got an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Rusesabagina, later co-wrote Not On Our Watch with activist/author John Prendergast. The latter was 20, Buckley’s age, when he first looked at the world beyond the U.S.

“People who don’t even have an interest in Darfur will read Not On Our Watch because it shows the compassion, the motivation and energy that can be infused into anything. It shows the power of one individual,” Buckley says. “John saw the famine in Ethiopia and said, ‘I’m going there to see what’s happening.’ He read about it and said, ‘This is wrong. I want to end this.’ You look at where he’s gone. He worked in (Bill) Clinton’s administration. He wrote books. He’s lived the life for people who want to follow in his footsteps.”

When Buckley arrived at USD in 2005, she wasn’t happy. “I was lost. I didn’t know what I was doing in San Diego. Sure, the weather is beautiful, the beach is amazing and people are cool, but I felt empty.” She considered a transfer. “But I stayed, and part of it was because I knew I could find something.”

That something was the Sudanese center. Buckley had a friend who worked there as a class requirement. It sounded like a perfect fit. “I needed a place to go that wasn’t USD or work.” (She waits tables in a restaurant in the Little Italy area).

Now Buckley tutors children and edits grant proposals. She also organizes slumber parties for the center’s teenage girls. “It’s the reason I’m still here. I fell in love with the people. I feel like part of the family. You watch (Hotel Rwanda) or (God Gave Up on Us) and, in those stories, I see the faces of the kids I tutor. I hear their stories. I was talking with one of the little boys. He was born in Kenya and half of his uncles are dead because of war, poverty and injustice.”

Buckley purchased a $300 plane ticket with money earned from extra restaurant shifts and attended the national STAND convention last September in Washington, D.C. “I fell in love with STAND. I fell in love with the people behind it, the motivation and empowerment. There’s a charge of energy you get when people come from all over the country and they’re here for the same reason.”

Initially, convincing USD students to support STAND worried Buckley. “There’s a fear that our school is full of apathy, that you see an atrocity on the front page of the newspaper, say ‘That sucks’ and go on with your coffee, your book for class, continue your day and don’t do anything about it.”

Buckley showed the documentary film Darfur Now at the IPJ Theatre. A standing room-only crowd renewed her faith. “People were sitting on the stairs … I had chills,” she says. “I was worried only five or 10 people would show up, but to have an amazing turnout — 90 percent were students — made me realize people do want to do something. This school is full of committed, active, energetic beings.”

Many of STAND’s members are underclassmen. At a recent meeting, Buckley spoke from the front of the room, but soon asked, “Can we move the desks into a circle? I don’t want to be the leader. This meeting is about encouraging action and to hear what everyone else has to say.”

Prendergast, who was a Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies Scholar in Residence this past spring, praises Buckley’s efforts. “When I met Summer in Washington, D.C., there wasn’t a STAND chapter here, and there wasn’t any organizational effort on campus. Less than a year later, not only is there a strong and vibrant chapter, but it has also infected the local community,” he says. “Summer’s efforts have engaged a number of activists to become more involved.”

Darfur is never far from Buckley’s mind. Between helping at the center, on-campus activism and satisfying requests from students who interview her for a class assignment, she is willing to see everything through.

“Call me ‘Darfur Girl’; I don’t care. It’s all I talk about every single day, because I want what’s happening there to end.”

Joshua Hamilton Hiermona Tesfamicael Summer Buckley Gyno Pomare