Russell Berrie Fellowship in the Pandemic

For many of us who are alumni of the Russell Berrie Fellowship, we fondly remember our first weeks in Rome as a time of excitement and joy at the beauty of the Eternal City. But with COVID, things look very different for 2020’s cohort. Currently in Rome there are five fellows and five more fellows still waiting to join them from other parts of the world including India, Sri Lanka, Cameroon and the USA. This year’s Orientation for the new Russell Berrie Fellows was therefore all on Zoom so everyone could participate.

Sr. Mary Ogeyi Odey, from Nigeria, enjoyed the orientation process and was amazed how everything was organised and carried out. “It was a great experience for me as a lover of technology (computer) how the zoom room was being ‘manipulated’ during the process,” she says. “Even though it was not a physical meeting, that connectedness as a family was created and felt to an extent.” Sr.Mary is currently in Rome, and on her arrival she was thrilled by the sight of the Great Basilica of St. Peter and the gigantic buildings in town which she had always watched on the television. Her favourite classes so far are the ones with Rabbi Jack – First Century Judaism and Prof. Rossi – Emerging Relevance of Ecumenical Concepts.

Sophie Palopoli, from the United States, is also loving “First Century Judaism” with Rabbi Jack and “Aquinas at Prayer” with Fr. Murray. She describes these professors as “superstars”. These classes are her favourites because the content is rich, meaningful, and practical. Sophie is grateful to be in Rome, to be healthy, and to be learning in person with good people. Her favorite experience so far was attending the Beatification of Carlo Acutis in Assisi and recognizing the call to be a saint is a call to love with a whole heart, a call for everyone!

At the Angelicum, they are taking every precaution to keep students safe including physical distancing, possible student and employee screening, contact tracing, limited group sizes, masks, and strict cleaning regimens. The medieval university has embraced technology. This year’s registration process was moved online and many of the classes have been using online learning platforms such as Google Classrooms. The Angelicum is offering many modes of learning including: In-Person ClassesHybrid Classes alternate between meeting online and in-person, Synchronous Classes meeting remotely as a group at regularly scheduled times, and Asynchronous Learning independent of regularly scheduled class times. Classes offer accommodations for students studying remotely for health reasons or because of distance.

Fr Emmanuel Aguiyi, from Nigeria, started his studies in Rome in January 2019. His first weeks as a Russel Berrie Fellow in the Angelicum have been quite interesting. “Meeting friends and familiar faces in Angelicum after a three-month long holiday informed me that I missed the place more than I had known,” Fr. Emmanuel says. “Unfortunately, the new Covid-19 protocol hindered what would have been lots of handshakes and prolonged greetings.” The stress of negotiating through course registrations with proper school offices in the first weeks was challenging.

Christopher Akongnwi is currently in Cameroon but is excited to travel to Rome soon. For him, being away for the orientation process was quite challenging in the sense that he missed physical contact. Christopher says, “I miss debates with professors had it been I was present. The technology stuff is a bit difficult to follow online classes.” With this shift to online learning, there are always a few bumps. What has made him happy is being part of the Russell Berrie Fellowship. ”Chatting with people around the world makes me happy and always looking forward to connecting with them.”

Gloria Guisbert, who is originally from Bolivia but grew up in the US, is also excited to be a part of the Russell Berrie Fellowship, even if it is currently from afar. “I have the amazing opportunity to go more in depth about subjects little-known to me and expand my theological knowledge.” says Gloria, “My favorite part about the program is actually getting to know the other fellows and how wonderful they are.” This year, Gloria looks forward to getting the tools to become a better interfaith leader.

For Gianluca Avanzato from the USA, the Russell Berrie Fellowship has proven to be both challenging and inspiring so far. Gianluca says,“Interreligious studies and dialogue have, as expected, confronted me with different ways of being in and experiencing the world, making me reflect upon my own beliefs and consider those of others.” He insists that while this is just the beginning, he has already had several profound, joyous, and inspirational experiences, and believes that this year will result in immense growth and lasting friendships.

Please pray for all our new Russell Berrie Fellows at the beginning of their Fellowship journey, including those listed here as well as Sr. Jisha Jacob, Fr. Baiju Julian, Ms. Ruki Salgado, and Dr. Ana Petrache, for safe travels for all to eventually come together in Rome!