Gonzaga University freshmen Simon and Simeon Menso know that one day they will return to their birth country of Liberia to help improve life in the West African democracy.
On Sunday the identical twin brothers sought some advice and inspiration for their goals from the first woman elected a head of state in Africa. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, dined with the young men before she delivered GU’s sixth Presidential Speaker Series lecture at McCarthey Athletic Center.
“Back in Liberia it’s really, really hard to meet the president because of the security risk and all that. And so just to have the opportunity to meet her in the United States, it’s pretty awesome,” said Simon Menso, 18.
After Sirleaf’s talk, Simon added, “To meet her up close and listen to her words of encouragement was a dream come true.”
Their parents live in Colorado, where the family moved upon immigrating to the U.S. when the twins were 6 years old. They have many relatives in Liberia, including two brothers, their maternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
“I’m excited to tell them all about it,” Simon said.
Leading up to Sunday’s meeting, he said they hoped to gain insights from Sirleaf about where she sees Liberia headed.
“We just want to talk about our vision and our goal for Liberia in hopes that she agrees with it and gives us advice to continue our dream,” Simon said.
Sirleaf has worked to rebuild Liberia after a devastating civil war, champion women’s rights and educational opportunities, and confront the recent Ebola crisis, which killed nearly 5,000 people in Liberia.
Ebola was “an enemy we did not understand,” she told almost 2,000 seated inside McCarthey. Liberia was declared Ebola-free last month and is back to rebuilding its economy and strengthening its health care system but has a long way to go, Sirleaf said. She noted the country only has 218 medical doctors to serve a population of 4.3 million.
She also spoke of her life’s journey and said her mother, a teacher and preacher, “is the source of my strength.”
Sirleaf told students in the crowd, “If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.”
As young children, Simon and Simeon lived in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital.
“We were just raised around a big community of people who really loved us,” Simon recalled. “I just remember a lot of games, playing around the yard, and just being involved in family activities. We’re just a very close-knit family.”
Their mother won a diversity visa to come to the U.S. and bring her family for better educational opportunities, Simon said.
“In Liberia you have to pay a tuition, even starting in grade school, to go to school. So it’s really hard to save up that money for your kids to go to school,” he said.
The twins returned to Liberia two years ago in hopes of doing some service work while there.
“It was kind of a culture shock at first,” Simon said. “I mean, we hadn’t been back there for 10 years. Just to see how different it was and to see how people were living. It kind of put a fire in us to get that education our parents really wanted us to, and go back and just help those who are in need. It was a really cool experience.”
At Gonzaga, both are studying human physiology. Simeon wants to go to medical school, become a pediatrician and work with the Doctors Without Borders program in Africa. Simon said he is interested in law school, specifically medical law, so he can have an influence in Liberia state policy “so that the health care system can become a lot stronger.”
They hope to one day create a nonprofit organization to build hospitals and schools for the children of Liberia.
Julie McCulloh, the college’s dean of admission, helped arrange the meeting between the brothers and Sirleaf.
“These young men have already shown a commitment to serve others, and have dedicated themselves to an educational path that will allow them to continue to improve their world, particularly the country of their birth,” McCulloh said. “I am very honored that they have chosen to make Gonzaga their home for the next four years.”
Simon said he and Simeon, who are residence hall roommates, were drawn to GU by the private school’s focus on service and faith. They are recipients of the Ignatian Leaders Scholarship and Community Scholar Awards.
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