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Human Services grad commits to social work in Sudan

May 01, 2008

Kristen Ventola is embarking on a career path that will take her to Africa in July and could later lead to anywhere in the world, doing almost anything and everything.

Just the way she wants it.

The Arizona State University student is set to receive her master’s degree in social work from the College of Human Services in May and has already made a three-year commitment to serve as a peace and advocacy program officer for the Sudan Council of Churches beginning in July.

“What I like most about social work is you have the opportunity to plant seeds, but you don’t know where it will take you or what’s coming your way; it can change from day to day, and that’s what makes it interesting,” she says, adding in reference to the far-flung commitment, “I’ve always had a passion for travel.”

She will be sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee, a relief, development and peace agency of the North American Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches. Her journey from the West campus – where she earned her bachelor’s in psychology in 2004 – will begin in Khartoum, the capital city of Africa’s largest country.

“I can do social work anywhere,” she says. “There are always opportunities to advocate for the oppressed; opportunities exist right here (in Arizona) at the border. Going to Sudan for three years is an opportunity for me to learn and gain a better understanding, to be a part of an overall community, and to get a better glimpse of a culture.”

Ventola, who moved to the Valley from Buffalo and graduated from Ironwood High School in Glendale, is no stranger to getting her hands dirty for the benefit of those less fortunate. Her resume includes social work for Christian Peacemaker Teams in Israel last summer, as well as her master’s internship with No More Deaths in Phoenix and along the U.S.-Mexico border near Douglas and Agua Prieta. The fact her next stop is a war-torn country that continues to generate headlines for man’s inhumanity to man is of little concern, she says.

“In many cases, people’s perceptions of those who live in these embattled areas are that they are either crazy or they are brave,” says Ventola, whose work with No More Deaths includes faith outreach and helping others become involved in supporting what she calls a more just way of life. “But those who are living it don’t see it that way.

“You can die driving to work or crossing the street. This is about relationship-building as a professional social worker. If you can’t do this wherever you are or wherever it is needed, you can’t help make change effectively. I don’t feel like I can learn everything in a few weeks; you need a better understanding and, as much as possible, to be a part of the community.”

The Sudan Council of Churches includes six churches in the southern part of the country and has acted as a facilitator to peace negotiations during the Second Sudanese Civil War. The organization also gained recognition for successfully negotiating an end to inter-ethnic fighting among Nuer – one of the largest ethnic groups in East Africa – in 1999.

Ventola will headquarter in an apartment in Khartoum, a city of over 2 million people located at the confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers. She will travel through different areas of Sudan for “weeks on end” and stay with families living in tribal and clan settings while working to bring Christian and Muslim factions together through communication and advocacy.

“Peace and reconciliation; this is part of my hope,” says Ventola in reference to her July 18 departure that will take her 8,300 miles from her home in Surprise. “This is the kind of social work that tends to encompass everything, and I like it because I won’t be doing the same thing day in and day out. There is a wide array of things I can do.

“It starts with being open to communication and dialogue. You have to be willing to listen in order to get to the root of why conflict is occurring. It can take a long time, but you plant seeds along the way and bring the issues onto the radar screen.”

Cynthia Lietz, an assistant professor of social work in ASU’s College of Human Services, has instructed and mentored Ventola in four classes over three years at the West campus. She says Ventola exemplifies the type of person the social work department seeks to recruit.

“Kristen demonstrates a commitment to advocating for underserved and underprivileged populations, while maintaining a high level of integrity,” says Lietz, who earned her Ph.D. from ASU’s College of Social Work in 2004. “Her commitment has been unwavering throughout her time in our social work program. She is compassionate and is well-informed about the issues that face our nation and the world.

As she prepares for her upcoming service, Ventola is studying Arabic.

“Ultimately, learning Arabic may lead me in another direction or open doors for me in the future,” she says. “Whether it is in the U.S. or overseas, social work is what I have in my heart.

“The options for practicing international social work are boundless.”

And for Kristen Ventola, someone whose passion for social work and travel knows no bounds, this is a good thing.