Transforming Lives

“We’re often overwhelmed by problems in the world. We can’t do everything. But choose something. Even if our own dreams and aspirations aren’t in line with what other people think, try anyway.”

The most transformative experience of Steve Reifenberg’s life now carries the possibility to transform the lives of hundreds of others. His book “Santiago’s Children: What I Learned About Life at an Orphanage in Chile” has been selected as the common reader for incoming first year students at Texas A&M International University in Laredo. The city of Laredo also has chosen Reifenberg’s book for its “One City One Book” program, with all area high school students reading it as well.

After graduating from Notre Dame in 1981, Reifenberg taught for one year in the States before spending two years in Chile. Based on those two years living and working at an orphanage there in the early 1980’s – when repressive military rule and widespread human rights violations gripped the country – “Santiago’s Children” chronicles the impact of political oppression on the lives of people, especially children.

“It was a remarkable opportunity to live and work at the orphanage at a critical moment in Chile’s history,” Reifenberg says. “It had a transformative effect on the rest of my life and gave me an interest in international issues and in vulnerable children in poverty.”

In the book, Reifenberg presents a series of vignettes of the lives of the orphans with whom he lived. Most of those stories are based on a journal Reifenberg kept during his time in Chile, when the systematic brutality of Pinochet’s regime darkened everyday life for people living there.  Reifenberg faced that brutal reality as he looked into the eyes of children orphaned because of the repression.

In one example, Reifenberg recalls the circumstances of two of the children:

“In a sign of protest against the government, a small group of unarmed people gathered at a home began banging pans together. Soldiers opened fire on the house and killed several people, leaving two children, ages 7 and 9, orphaned.”

Though exposing a tragic chapter in Chile’s history, “Santiago’s Children” offers readers an international history lesson with a personal touch.

“What caught our attention was the accessibility of the book to our incoming freshmen,” says Hayley Kazen, chair of the common reading committee and University Seminar instructor at Texas A&M International.

“We also really liked the fact that not only did the book have an issue we could discuss in class, but also that it incorporated some history of Chile as well. Probably what intrigued us most though, was that the author didn’t really know what he wanted to do with his life. I think that will hit a nerve with many freshmen who are grappling with this issue and open the door to some interesting conversations.”

Reifenberg spent the last 20 years working on international themes at Harvard University, including nearly 8 years as director of Harvard’s Regional Office in Santiago, Chile. His interest in international issues has brought him back to Notre Dame some 30 years after graduating. As executive director of Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies, Reifenberg oversees strategic planning and international initiatives, and teaches a course on international development.

“Find something you’re passionate about and stay with it,” Reifenberg advises. “We’re often overwhelmed by problems in the world. We can’t do everything. But choose something. Even if our own dreams and aspirations aren’t in line with what other people think, try anyway.”

*This article, Transforming Lives, first appeared in the University of Notre Dame’s faculty spotlight section.

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