July 13, 2015 | noon
By Jenny Hudalla '15
Nkiruka Okafor was combing the Internet for cheap plane tickets to Nigeria when a phone call delivered the best news she’d heard all day: She had just been named one of 34 women from developing countries to receive a $15,000 education grant from the Margaret McNamara Memorial Fund.
“I jumped up several times and started dancing,” says Okafor, a Catholic nun and marriage and family therapy student at Bethel Seminary.
While she is the first Bethel student to receive the international grant, Okafor’s professors aren’t surprised. According to Tina Wiens, director of the marriage and family therapy program, Okafor is a “one-in-a-million student.”
“Nkiruka is determined to open up space for all people to experience dignity and wholeness,” Wiens says. “She understands people in their full context and strives to create ways of being with others that honors God.”
Raised in Awka, Nigeria, Okafor obtained a bachelor’s degree in theology and a master’s degree in pastoral communication from the Catholic Institute of West Africa before beginning her journey as a doctoral candidate in pastoral care and counseling at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.
While she worked on a dissertation proposal, Okafor and her doctoral committee members decided she needed more training to authenticate her work. After considering several universities in the Twins Cities, Okafor decided the marriage and family therapy program at Bethel Seminary best suited her desire for integrated work in spirituality and therapy.
“Bethel has not only supported my goal but made it possible for me to be in the program,” Okafor says. “When I started at Bethel, I had no clue where the funding might come from. The wonderful women [in the marriage and family therapy] program kept faith and hope alive even when I despaired.”
Having formally received the grant in Washington, D.C., on May 19, Okafor will use it to pay the tuition for her last year at Bethel Seminary. According to Wiens, the application process was “very, very competitive,” and Okafor’s receipt of the grant speaks to the depth of her accomplishments.
In Nigeria, Okafor volunteered as a chaplain for youth and incarcerated women, offered free counseling sessions, and mentored young people. Now, she volunteers as a minister of the Eucharist and worship leader in Minneapolis and serves meals at the Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul.
Eventually, Okafor plans to return to Nigeria and teach at the Catholic Institute of West Africa, her alma mater. She also wants to continue her work there with commercial sex workers and prison rehabilitation for women.
“This is the type of dedication and vocation that should be recognized and supported around the globe,” Wiens says. “Her lived experience and method of integrating faith and science is powerful and privileges the recognition that all aspects of humanity have the indwelling of the Imago Dei.”