Each year, Boston College selects one junior from a talented pool of students for the Archbishop Oscar A. Romero Scholarship, an award granted to an individual who has demonstrated academic excellence, extracurricular leadership, community service, and involvement with the Hispanic/Latino community both at BC and off-campus. In March, Maura Lester McSweeney, MCAS ’17, became the most recent recipient of the prestigious award.
Born and raised in Nicaragua, the Perspectives major and International Studies minor has always known that she wanted to help her home country. McSweeney attended a Jesuit school there from the time she was four years old, where the values of St. Ignatius were instilled in her at an early age.
“That kind of education orients you towards paying attention to reality,” McSweeney says. “Our school made a huge effort to make sure we didn’t ignore the fact that we lived in the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and we were connected to that reality and we were oriented towards making a difference in the country that would close the gap of inequality.”
She also references her parents as major influences in her dedication to serving the community.
“They are the embodiment of what a commitment to social justice is, and have really raised me to have those values and to see my future as not a future just for myself and for my own success," McSweeey says, "but one with me as an instrument for dismantling the systems of injustice and creating a better world for everyone."
The couple moved to Nicaragua from the United States in the 1980s, and have made an effort to instill the values of Archbishop Romero in their daughter, even taking her to El Salvador for the 25th anniversary of his murder. McSweeney’s father works as co-director of the Center for Global Education and Experience and her mother, a BC graduate, is a translator.
“My parents do this work for a living,” McSweeney says, “and that has really been what has motivated me by seeing people who actually do this work and what that looks like, why they do it, and what drives them to do it.”
At BC, McSweeney’s dedication to affecting social change began manifesting itself at the beginning of her freshman year. She joined The Other Americas, a publication documenting the economic, political, and social realities of Latin America and Latin Americans in the United States, and has worked with the other members over the last three years to, in her words, bring the organization up from “being and underground, dying club to a club that is starting to flourish.”
“Coming here I felt like the reality of the Boston College community and Chestnut Hill and the reality of Nicaragua were so different and so contrasting,” McSweeney says. “They do overlap and intersect but people here just didn’t seem to be aware of that, and to me that was the only thing I could think about 100% of the time.”
To her, the experience with The Other Americas has allowed her to express the interconnectedness of the BC and Latin American realities.
She is also involved with the Organization of Latin American Affairs; starting as a Freshman Rep, she is now part of the Social Political Action Team and has worked to organize events such as the Human Link demonstration in O’Neill Plaza last semester.
To name a few of her other commitments, McSweeney is a Student Ambassador for Catholic Relief Services and works with Ignatian Family Teach-Ins to talk to members of government about issues like immigration reform. She translated for the Arrupe trip to Nicaragua this past Winter Break, joined the Ignatian Pilgrimage trip this past Spring Break to walk the path of St. Ignatius, and interned with Free the Children, a Canadian international charity, in between graduating high school and starting at BC.
In addition to her service work, McSweeney’s academic experiences at BC have contributed significantly to her goals for the future. Starting as a freshman science major with a tentative goal of contributing to the development of Nicaragua through science, her Perspectives class and humanities courses helped her realize that her future lies in human-rights oriented work.
“I think those two components, the academic part of learning why these injustices are happening in the world and what different people have done to tackle those injustices and dismantle the systems of oppression, or what people have done to try to build them up more, while side by side with that learning how to advocate and doing advocacy work has been really crucial for me,” she says.
Despite her impressive accomplishments since arriving at BC, McSweeney’s college life has been a period of adjustment from her life in Nicaragua. Having spent Christmases in the US with her family, she didn’t expect the level of culture shock that came with spending time with her peers at BC, or the homesickness that accompanied 10 months away from her home country.
“I started realizing that the way I think about things is so different from the way that my classmates and my hallmates seemed to be thinking about things,” McSweeney says. “I was very angry for a lot of my freshman year because I didn’t realize that I was raised in a completely different context and that’s what led me to think the things that I think and to feel the ways that I feel.”
After establishing relationships with faculty mentors like Margaret Nuzzolese, Dan Ponsetto, and Burt Howell, all of whom have ties to Nicaragua, McSweeney was able to receive the support she needed to move forward and realize fully what she could accomplish through the opportunities at BC. In her work with Arrupe and The Other Americas, she is able to bridge the gap between the BC and Nicaraguan realities and “make other people at BC feel as frustrated” as she does.
In terms of her future goals, McSweeney is still in the process of deciding on a single set of issues to devote her life to, admitting that she cares “too much about a lot of things.”
Women’s rights, public health, and education are among her interests for her humanitarian career. She is considering going to graduate school or volunteering internationally through a program like Jesuit Volunteers International, but knows for certain that her future is in Nicaragua.
“In the end, I’ve realized that this really is where I should be,” McSweeney says. “I’ve learned that even in a place that’s so different from where I’m from, I’ve been able to find people and communities where I can be in, where I can grow, and where I can share and try to make a difference.”