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Degrees to Serve a Higher Calling

Sisters Tam Pham and Rachael

Just four years ago, the idea of walking across the stage to receive a college degree from an American university was the furthest thing from the minds of Sister Mary Tam Pham of Sister of Daughters of Our Lady of Visitation in Vietnam, and Sister Rachael Mshindani, Sisters of St. Joseph of Mombasa in Kenya. 

Both women, who are in their 40s, had spent the past two decades focusing on their mission of providing spiritual guidance, care, and support to serve the people in their communities. All that changed when, separately, they were each recommended by their individual Order Superiors to participate in a special scholarship program. First, they would earn an Associate’s degree from the Assumption College for Sisters, then complete a Bachelor’s degree at another university. They both selected Georgian Court to continue their academic journey.

“My dream has always been to become a nurse. I love taking care of people and serving others—that is my happiness and when I feel most fulfilled,” said Sister Rachael. “At GCU, the scholarship was for two years, and I did not have the prerequisite to begin the nursing program, so my adviser, Dr. Sachiko Komagata, guided me to pursue my major in Health Profession Studies. She has been wonderful,” said Sister Rachael who now completed all the nursing prerequisites.

Sister Rachael earned a Bachelor of Science in Health Profession Studies, but she has not given up on the nursing dream. In fact, she has been accepted into GCU’s Master of Science in Nursing program and is exploring scholarship and financial aid options to be able to continue her studies. 

No matter the outcome, she looks forward to using her knowledge and skills to aid her community. “We have hospitals and serve in health centers and dispensaries in Kenya, and we have several nurses and aids and Sister’s working at those. The Superior will decide where I am needed, and no matter where that is, it will be my joy to serve my people,” she explained.

Sister Tam Pham, who majored in visual arts and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Fine Arts, said attending GCU helped her explore a lifelong interest in art. “I think I am the first person in my community to study art. I want to use my art skills to help the younger Sisters learn more about graphic design and art, and to share different kinds of art with the children.”  She added, “I always loved art when I was young, and God gave me the path to study art and help others.”  

Painting portraits has become her favorite method of artistic expression. She has painted GCU President Joseph Marbach and several faculty members, and she often paints landscapes, particularly of Vietnam, to share her home with others. 

“When you are painting you are not just making something beautiful; you are sharing what is in your mind, your heart, and soul. There is no good or bad, but it is up to your worldview.  Painting can also be used as a form of meditation and prayer,” she explained.

The support of GCU faculty, staff, and students and the welcoming nature of the campus made a difference for both Sisters as they balanced faith, studies, and life.

“The campus ministry helped arrange Sunday Masses and weekday celebrations for us, which was very helpful and made us feel more comfortable. Even if it [GCU] is not run by the Sisters anymore you feel the Catholic mission throughout the school, and that made it feel like home,” said Sister Rachael.

“I am very glad for this school and had a happy time here,” said Sister Tam Pham. “At first, I was worried, since English is my second language, that I wouldn’t understand what the professors were teaching and was afraid about getting the time to finish quizzes and exams, but they said, ‘Don’t worry about it, take the time you need, just make it right,’ and worked with me so I could succeed.”

The connections with students on campus also enhanced the experience. Sister Rachael explained, “Whatever course I took I was able to find friends to exchange numbers to call and ask if I didn’t understand something in class, and they would help me. Working together and in discussion groups, it was easy to chat and laugh with them, and we encouraged each other.”

Sister Tam Pham said the students were a bit wary of her at first, but that quickly changed. “They realized I wasn’t different—even though I was a Sister—they came to talk to me about their lives and work, and we would study together, and help each other like a community.”

Both Sisters thanked their Superiors for giving them this opportunity to pursue higher education and thanked GCU and President Marbach for the support and scholarships that made this journey possible.

“I love this school. The staff and professors are very approachable, the grounds are so natural with all the trees and gardens and are great places to study, meditate, and be spiritual. You just find yourself happy here,” said Sister Rachael.

Sister Tam Pham noted, “The people here are very kind and I am so very thankful that I have had two years to study here. This will be an excellent memory, studying here in America. This was a perfect time for me, but I will keep GCU in my prayers. May God bless our School.”

Sister Rachael concluded, “I am so privileged to come to the US to study and learn new skills. I was able to study and pray. I thank God for his faithfulness and love for me, for His grace is always sufficient.”

Aerial view of GCU.

About Georgian Court University

Georgian Court University is a leading regional university that provides a transformative education, preparing students for ethical leadership and service in the Catholic Mercy tradition. Founded in 1908 and sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, Georgian Court University is Central and South Jersey’s only Catholic university. The university has a strong liberal arts core and a historic special concern for women.

As a forward-thinking university that supports diversity and academic excellence, GCU is known for expanding possibility for more than 1,900 students of all faiths and backgrounds in 35+ undergraduate majors and 10+ graduate programs. The GCU Lions compete in 16 NCAA Division II sports in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC). In 2020, GCU was named a Best Value College by and a Best Bang for the Buck (Northeast) by Washington Monthly. High student retention and graduation rates make GCU a Top Performer on Social Mobility on U.S. News & World Reports rankings.

The main campus is in Lakewood, New Jersey, on the picturesque former George Jay Gould estate, a National Historic Landmark. Georgian Court, which is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, also serves students through its Center for Professional Studies, and at other locations, including GCU at Brookdale, and through multiple online degree and certificate programs.