It was social studies teacher Audrey Damon-Wynne who noticed McFarland High School senior Maiah O’Rourke had a passion for international relations and languages.
At the urging of her teacher, the student signed up her freshman year to take part in the Wisconsin Department of Instruction’s Global Education Achievement Certificate (GEAC) program that encourages students to focus on global citizenship by completing a global education curriculum and co-curriculars and experiences to develop global competencies.
O’Rourke will graduate as the school’s first global scholar at Sunday’s commencement exercises.
“I’m really glad that I did it and stuck with it, because I feel like it’s really shaped who I am, not just the program but what I did for the program,” she said.
As part of the GEAC, students must commit a minimum 20 hours to a service project connected to a global community different from their own or to a global issue. O’Rourke fulfilled the requirement with a three-week service trip to Uganda during the spring of her sophomore year.
For two weeks, she was in Uganda (the other seven days were spent traveling and a three day stop in Dubai) with the group Hope For Kids. While O’Rourke found the program through her church, she said the purpose of traveling to Uganda was not to spread religion; rather, it was an opportunity to volunteer to assist people who lived in the African country.
Much of the service project was done before traveling to Uganda as Hope For Kids raised money before going to Africa. These funds were used to pay for building a few wells and a latrine, purchasing supplies and hosting a one-day medical clinic in the city of Tororor.
“That was my favorite day by far. I feel like that’s where I had the biggest impact,” said O’Rourke whose mom, Janine O’Rourke, also went on the service trip.
The student worked in a medical tent, preparing slides for HIV and malaria blood tests.
“We didn’t do a lot of hands-on volunteering when it came to building things,” she said. “We wanted to empower people and give them the tools to build.”
Other parts of the trip were taking photos of local children and visiting the Smiles For Africa orphanage. The McFarland teen explained it was not a traditional orphanage but a place for children whose families struggled to provide for them. O’Rourke said children could go to the building for two meals a day and have a safe place to spend time.
O’Rourke is a seasoned international traveler, but this was the first time she was not visiting a developed nation.
“I’ve traveled to a lot of places in the world with my mom, which I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to do … but I’ve never been somewhere where there’s so much poverty and it was just so different – the culture, the way they lived. Everything was so drastically different than what I’ve seen before,” she said.
During the volunteer trip to Uganda, the local residents would give the members of Hope For Kids animals including turkeys, goats and chickens.
“It really shows how selfless they are, because this would have fed their family,” O’Rourke said. “They really have so little, and they gave so much to us.”
The animals were regifted to various locals including people who worked at the hotel where the group was staying and a local church.
In addition to the service project requirement, GEAC students must take high school classes focused on global relations, including at least one year of a foreign language. O’Rourke will graduate with four years of high school Spanish and three years of high school French; she would have taken a fourth year of French but could not fit it into her senior year schedule.
Global scholars need to be involved in co-curriculars and activities that support global citizenship. The McFarland student accomplished this through four years with the schoool’s Model UN club.
She also went on several student exchange programs sponsored by the Madison Rotary Club. O’Rourke spent five weeks in Spain the summer before her sophomore year and went to Argentina for four weeks the summer before her junior year.
She will be using her passport again shortly as her family plans to spend three weeks in France where they will meet up with an exchange student they hosted and visit Normandy among other activities. In August, even before O’Rourke begins classes at UW-Madison, she will take part in a freshman class involving three weeks in Ireland to compare Irish and American politics and examine how the Irish revolution was intertwined with the American Revolution.
The teen isn’t sure what she wants to specifically major in at UW but wants to study social sciences and hopes her future career includes travel.
Overall, becoming a global scholar has been a positive experience for O’Rourke.
“I think it helped me learn how to become more of a global citizen, and I think that’s really important,” she said. “I just hope other people will get involved with it, and even if they don’t, people can find other ways to become a global citizen.”