VERMILLION, S.D. -- It took getting lost in India for Jessica Sundleaf to find the way to live her life. The University of South Dakota senior spent five weeks in Calcutta, India this summer as part of a Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) mission trip.
Sundleaf, a psychology and pre-med major from Sioux Falls, S.D., was one of just 11 undergraduate students from around the United States that traveled to India as part of the mission, which began with a meeting in Washington, D.C. and included a 30-hour trip to Calcutta.
“It was really cool to interact with people from all over the country and hear how our college lives are different, yet how we all came to be on the same mission,” Sundleaf said.
The mission, according to Sundleaf, involved more interaction with children and adolescents from India than expected. Through the Missionaries of Charity, which was founded by Mother Teresa, Sundleaf and her college counterparts traveled to Calcutta and volunteered at the homes the sisters run. Sundleaf volunteered at Daya Dun – a home for disabled children. While she first believed the mission to be about teaching or instructing, she was having a difficult time reaching a 17 year-old severely disabled boy.
“It was interesting because I’m not a teacher,” she admitted, “and I was struggling to get through one-on-one with him whether it was the mental challenges (he was mentally disabled) or the language barriers.”
What happened next went beyond changing how Sundleaf viewed the mission; it changed her outlook on life. Her time in India was predicated on making a connection with disabled children more than teaching or instructing them in the school lessons she had prepared.
“One of the sisters approached me and said, ‘you’re not here to teach them math or how to read, you’re here to interact with them. You’re here to teach them behavioral skills and help ease them back into society where they can be part of the community. The most important thing is simply to love them, for they have been abandoned by their families,’” Sundleaf described. “As soon as I switched from trying to be a teacher to more of a friend, he was a lot more willing to communicate and do the schoolwork.”
“In the end, you become attached and I wanted to stay,” Sundleaf admitted. “Even loving these people and giving them a chance makes a difference, and that was very moving to me.”
Her time in India got off to a very rough start. Following a 30-hour trek that took her from Washington, D.C., London, Mumbai and then Calcutta, Sundleaf says her group got lost for hours not knowing where to go or how to get to where they were staying.
“When I stepped off that plane (in Calcutta), it was sensory overload,” she said with a laugh. “Here we were, in Calcutta with 14 million people, in the heart of the poorest area and it was 110 degrees, we were lost and we didn’t speak the language. It was a surreal experience.”
She remembers thinking to herself, “how many days do I have left?” and how far out of her comfort zone she really was. But, in the end, she wanted to stay. Sundleaf took the sisters’ own message to heart: interaction was the key to making a difference in India and back home for her.
“It took this South Dakota girl going to a city of 14 million people in India to find peace and what my mission is here,” added Sundleaf, the daughter of Todd and Jane Sundleaf – both USD alums. “I went to India but my mission isn’t over; it’s never over.”
Sundleaf has already returned to campus as a member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, and is preparing for her final year at USD. As one of forty or so FOCUS student missionaries on campus, she leads a bible study and meets frequently with other USD students to share stories and unite in fellowship. As president of USD’s Alternative Week of Off-campus Learning (AWOL) program, traveling to help others isn’t new to Sundleaf, who has been to Birmingham, Ala., Kansas City, Mo., and Philadelphia, Pa. to volunteer in service-learning projects. Ultimately, she would like to attend the Sanford School of Medicine, become a doctor and return to India where medical help is more than needed.
“There’s a great need for good medical care in Calcutta,” she added. “I would love to be able to go back and come full circle to offer my services there as a doctor, too.”