Peace Professor: Judy Mayotte Knows Hardship, Both Her Own and That of Refugees, but She Teaches Hope

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Traveling to war zones and meeting with refugees from the grimmest spots in the world, Judy Mayotte always had one question nagging her: "How do you get ahead of wars and keep them from happening in the first place?"

Now that her work is in the classroom, Mayotte hopes her students will answer this question. The refugee advocate and theology professor helped establish Marquette University's South Africa Service Learning Program. As a board member of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation, she is now reaching out to a new generation of peacemakers from around Africa through a new master's degree program in peace, leadership, and development at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa as well.

PERSEVERANCE: Over a long and varied career--she was first a nun, then became a television producer, then an author and an advocate for the displaced-Mayotte has always triumphed in the wake of loss. Stricken with polio during her first year of college, she had to learn to walk again. Embracing Catholicism against her father's wishes, she became a nun and found herself on a lifelong path of humanitarian work.

As a refugee expert, Mayotte has confronted humanity at its worst; yet it is the extraordinary courage and hope shown by ordinary people that sticks with her. So when she lost the lower part of her leg in a freak accident in southern Sudan 14 years ago--a plane flying overhead dropped its cargo of emergency food at just the wrong moment and a 200-pound bag of grain crashed down on her leg--it only deepened her resolve to work toward building a more peaceful world.

"My whole life has been serendipitous-it has never been planned," says Mayotte.

EVER HOPEFUL: Mayotte shuffles energetically around her apartment with the help of a walker. All the time she spent in war zones has convinced her that peace is a real and tangible prospect, she says.

"A lot of naysayers say that we have to meet violence with violence, but we don't," she says. "We really have to pay attention to the tangible needs of people, and bring greater equity to people, in order to stem the conflicts that we have."

Many of her master's students come from Rwanda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and other African countries scarred by war. "You see the promise and you see the richness that they bring to a class, because they've lived these experiences of war, and those lived experiences have made them want to go and create a different world."

REBEL FAITH: Born into a well-heeled Protestant family in Wichita, Kansas, Mayotte embraced Catholicism as an act of rebellion when her father sent her to a Catholic boarding school, but later she absorbed the humanitarian message of the faith.

"My father detested Catholics, but he also thought the nuns were good disciplinarians," she says. At 21 she became a sister of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a teaching order that sparked her passion for humanitarian work and brought to life the idea of an active, socially engaged spirituality. …