The Perpetual Ex-Pat
Perhaps the best way to describe Patrick Ryan, S.J., is to call him a perpetual ex-pat. For 26 years, he lived as a teacher and missionary in West Africa. And today he seems almost out of place in his office at Fordham's Lincoln Center campus, where photo collages of friends from Nigeria and Ghana decorate his walls. He speaks with a somewhat Anglo-Irish accent, the long-term result of growing up in a very Irish setting in Queens, N.Y., as well as the many years spent in former British colonies. And when he talks of his encounters abroad, his eyes flicker with a homesick pride.
|Patrick Ryan, S.J.
Photo by Chris Taggart
“Africa has entered into my imagination,” said Father Ryan (JES ’63, GSAS ’65), the vice president for University mission and ministry at Fordham. “I don’t feel a stranger there.”
Back in the United States after his most recent assignment as the first president of Loyola Jesuit College in Abuja, Nigeria, a secondary boarding school, Father Ryan has supervised Fordham’s programs in Campus Ministry, Global Outreach and Community Service since 2005.
Fordham’s Global Outreach program provides students with a chance to do a one-, two- or three-week service-learning project in an impoverished area, either abroad or in the United States. Last January, during winter break, Fordham undergraduates studied issues affecting women in Thailand; worked with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in India; helped link suburban churches to poor urban parishes in Camden, N.J.; and learned about migrant workers’ struggles in Immokalee, Fla.
“They’re quite affected by what they see,” said Father Ryan, referring to the abject poverty in these regions. “It changes you forever.” When the students return, he said, staff members of Global Outreach host debriefing sessions. “They have to sort of talk it out with them.”
Though difficult, a profound life change is what Father Ryan hopes to see in students.
“I would hope that they would come home,” he said, “with a broadened vision of the real problems of the rest of the world.”
True to the Jesuit philosophy of education, the Global Outreach program “tries to open students up to a wider world, and a world filled with needs,” said Father Ryan, adding that learning, not helping, is the critical component of the student trips.
The Jesuit teaching and learning tradition has long shaped Father Ryan’s own life. During his first assignment to Africa, as a Jesuit in formation, he taught in a Catholic but non-Jesuit high school in Nigeria. Later, after theological studies in the United States, ordination at Fordham in 1968 and subsequent graduate work at Harvard, Father Ryan taught for 15 years at two different universities in Ghana.
In his time as president of Loyola Jesuit College in Abuja, Nigeria, which opened its doors in October 1996, the school went from struggling to take in 100 students each year to receiving approximately 1,800 applications for 120 spots annually. Even Nigerians based in the United States are now seeking to send their children to the school.
Father Ryan keeps an eye on graduates of the school in America, who go to universities such as MIT, Yale, Columbia and Princeton. This year, there are three Loyola Jesuit College graduates studying at Fordham—Oludolapo Fakeye, a sophomore in the honors program; Ada Enyioha, a senior applying to medical schools; and Anthony Akande (FCRH ’07), a graduate student currently pursuing a master’s degree in economics.
As for his own learning, Father Ryan became fascinated by the cultural variety of West Africans. For example, there is a southern Ghanaian custom of always shaking hands with a group of people from right to left, which he finds himself repeating in the United States during Mass. He also was particularly intrigued by the Yoruba people he has lived among, and how Muslims and Christians in that culture live in such harmony, sometimes even in the same family.
“There’s something in their culture that enables them to do more than tolerate—to share with each other their faith and customs,” Father Ryan said.
The experience left him interested in multi-faith collaboration and inspired him to study Islam and Arabic at Harvard, where he earned a doctorate in comparative religion and Islamic studies in 1975. He continues even now to teach part-time in Fordham’s Middle East Studies program.
But perhaps most of what Father Ryan learned, and what he hopes for Global Outreach students, is less tangible.
“During the years I lived in Africa,” he said, “I learned so much about being human.”