From IWU Magazine, Spring 2013 edition
Shannon O’Rourke: Inspired to Help
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, O'Rourke puts her community development skills
to use to help children displaced by war continue their educations.
As a world-traveling humanitarian worker, Shannon O’Rourke ’07 brings an international
perspective to the late IWU President Minor Myers’ oft-quoted urging for new graduates
to go forth into the world “and do good.”
For O’Rourke, doing good in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) means providing
access to education for children whose lives have been torn apart by a conflict that
is entering its second decade.
O’Rourke is stationed in the heart of this conflict, in Goma, the capital of the war-torn
province of North Kiva. Even as politicians and rebel leaders attempt to negotiate
some definition of peace in North Kiva, armed groups continue small-scale fighting.
A weak central government and armed rebels all seeking to control areas with access
to mines rich in gold and coltan — a metallic ore used to produce many electronic
devices — have created a toxic mix where “there is no peace, but only lulls between
violence,” says O’Rourke.
Just outside Goma, internally displaced person camps ring the city, filled with Congolese
who have fled their homes because of violence associated with a rebel force known
as the M23 movement, as well as other armed groups. Peace talks between the central
government and the M23 continue, but the death and suffering have not paused as numerous
armed groups continue to fight.
In a piece published on the CNN website in February, Save the Congo founder Vava Tampa
summed up the situation: “Invasions, proxy wars and humanitarian crises have senselessly
shut down millions of lives, displaced millions more from their homes and left countless
women and young girls brutally raped, with the world barely raising an eyebrow.”
O’Rourke is doing what she can to help. Her job with the non-profit Norwegian Refugee
Council (NRC) involves managing all education-in-emergencies programming for the organization
in the Congo. The projects she oversees include constructing temporary schools or
rebuilding ones that have been destroyed by violence, providing equipment and supplies
and training teachers. She also coordinates “catch-up” classes for students who have
missed school after fleeing their homes due to the war or whose schools were closed
because occupiers have taken them over.
“There are over 2.4 million internally displaced people in the Congo, and that number
continues to grow,” she says. “In one of the provinces where I work, about 500 schools
have been damaged by the escalation of fighting since April 2012. There is much to
It’s work that, in many ways, began at Illinois Wesleyan, where O’Rourke made her
first steps overseas. A political science and international studies double major,
she gained a new perspective on the world through courses such as “Third World Women”
and “Politics in Africa.”
As a junior, she studied abroad for a semester in Switzerland. For her research project,
she worked with a World Trade Organization representative from the East African nation
of Tanzania. “The experience pushed me to want to discover Africa firsthand,” says
O’Rourke. “I simply made up my mind that I would go.”
In the Congo, O'Rourke oversees reconstruction of schools that have been destroyed
From the experience, O’Rourke also realized “I wanted to expand my interest in international
relations to international development as well.” But perhaps the greatest benefit
of study abroad, she says, was simply learning to adapt to the culture and customs
of a new country. “It’s not an easy transition the first time,” she says, “so having
that experience as a student helped me when I needed to do it professionally as well.”
After graduation, O’Rourke received a Rotary Cultural Ambassador Scholarship to Senegal.
To make the most of the opportunity, she extended her stay by taking an internship
with a small non-profit called 10,000 Girls, which works to lower the soaring school
dropout rate among girls in the Kaolack region of Senegal. As part of her internship,
O’Rourke helped start a bookmobile to travel to villages in the region, where books
O’Rourke returned to the U.S. to earn a master’s degree in international development
at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Her studies focused on international
community development, empowering communities through education and capacity building
— skills that would serve her well in what came next.
She returned to Africa in 2010 to serve as a site manager with FORGE, a developmental
organization in the Meheba Refugee Settlement in Zambia. O’Rourke then moved to Kalonge
in the DRC as a site program manager with International Medical Corps. She joined
the Norwegian Refugee Council, Norway’s largest humanitarian foundation, in 2012.
Recognized as one of the most important international aid organizations in the Congo,
NRC is also a close partner with the United Nations to bring aid and support to the
many who need assistance in the region.
In Goma, where O’Rourke is stationed, tens of thousands of people were displaced after
M23 rebels seized the city of one million for several weeks in late 2012. DRC military
and UN Peacekeeping trucks commonly patrol the roads, and there are blackouts several
times a day, but life in Goma is not without some pleasures. “I love to dance, and
it’s great to be in a place where music and dancing is such a big part of the culture,”
says O’Rourke, who has judged competitions of breakdancers and hip hop artists in
O’Rourke will earn another passport stamp in May when she travels to Hiroshima, Japan,
as a representative to the Rotary Global Peace Forum. One of three such Rotary events
to be held this year, the Hiroshima event’s theme is “Peace Through Service” — a theme
that resonates throughout her post-college experiences.
Asked where her path may lead next, O’Rourke responds: “Good question, one of my family’s
favorites. All I can say is I take life one step at a time.” What inspires the steps
she has taken to go out into the world and do good? The answer can be found in a quote
by Mahatma Gandhi that is among her favorites: “The difference between what we do
and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.”
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