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Neville’s bookmark: Jelcia and Ester in Year 7 in 2013

Five years ago, Colégio de Santo Inácio de Loiola (CSIL) took in its first intake of Year 7 students. In December this year, those students will be the first Year 12 cohort to graduate from this Jesuit school in Timor-Leste. The first graduation ceremony is much anticipated not only by the students but also by many Jesuits and friends.

Among them is Neville Harpham, who has been traveling from Australia to Timor-Leste for the last nine years. When he is asked why, the spry septuagenarian is quick to offer to show a set of slides he created to answer just this question.

He points to the first photo – two beaming 13-year-olds standing in front of a classroom in their new school. The girls, Jelcia and Ester, are among the first students of CSIL in Timor-Leste. Neville calls the photo his “bookmark”, explaining that it reminds him of why he is so involved in the Jesuit education project in one of Asia’s poorest countries.

“It’s wonderful to see the young people educated, to see their happy smiles,” he says. “They are willing to spend longer hours in school than in a government school and they have such camaraderie.”

It all began when he crossed paths with Fr Mark Raper SJ, who had been a year ahead of him at Riverview, the Jesuit school in Sydney, after many years. Neville was then Chairman of the Riverview College Council and working for a major property development company in Sydney and Fr Mark was the Australian Jesuit Provincial.

Some years later, when Fr Mark became President of the Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific, he asked Neville if he could go to Timor-Leste to help with the education project.

Neville was quick to say yes. “I knew Timor-Leste was a poor country and I knew what education had done for my brothers and me, for my mother and her sister. I tell people that if you give your children a good education, they will survive. They can lose everything in life, but no one can take their education away from them.”

He had grown up on a cattle property in Queensland, one of five sons of parents keen on their sons being well educated. His mother, who died a few years ago, obtained a degree in arts in the 1930s, a time when relatively few women had higher education.

Neville and his brothers were sent to Riverview to study so for five years, Neville was a boarder there. “I only saw my father once at Riverview in those five years,” he remembers.

It was at Riverview that he learnt Ignatius’ prayer for generosity. “One of the strongest prayers I have heard is the prayer of St Ignatius. It kind of sums up my life, helping others.

“I grew up in the country. You learn in the country to respect your neighbours, to help your neighbours,” he explains. “Then Riverview, man for others. So it was kind of a natural step for me to come up and help.”

Although he made his first trip to Timor-Leste in 2009 to consult on the project, it was not until 2011, when Fr Mark was also Superior of the Jesuits in the country that he began to be more heavily involved.

Jelcia and Ester, now in Year 12, are in the first batch of students to graduate from CSIL

The education project had been approved by then Fr General Adolfo Nicolás, and Fr Mark had called for a meeting of the team he had gathered to work on making the dream of a Jesuit school in Timor-Leste a reality. Neville, who is an engineer by training, Peter Mayoh, an architect who is also a Riverview alumnus, and Marie Emmitt of the Australian Catholic University flew to the country to participate in the consultations with local Jesuits and experts including the Timorese Ministry of Education. After these consultations, Neville recalls, they came up with a brief that Peter and Gonçalo Lencastre, the Portuguese architect who would become the local architect, translated into an architectural master plan.

Construction began in mid-2012 and enough was built to allow the school to open onsite in January 2013 with 74 students in its first intake for Year 7.

Since that time until he retired at the end of 2014, Neville spent a lot of his holiday and long service leave in Timor-Leste being, as he describes himself, a “dogsbody”. “I am the eyes, ears, coordinator, provocateur, questioner,” he says.

“Today we have classes running from Years 7 to 12 in CSIL and the administration and teacher faculty rooms, library, canteen and multipurpose hall were completed last year. The chapel will open this year and planning for laboratories, music rooms and a stage is underway,” he reports.

“Instituto São João de Brito, which is the teacher education institute, will move over to its permanent home this year with students in the first three years of their four-year course. They have been using some CSIL classrooms since 2016.”

All this is more or less par for the course for Neville. As he says, “80 percent of this is what I have been doing all my life. It’s the rest, the 20 percent, that is very exciting.

“I ask myself, how do I apply all my experience to help young people here reach their potential. It’s the qualitative stuff that drives me.”

Again he points to his bookmark. “That picture describes what we are trying to do. The two young girls in Year 7, and now they are in Year 12. It will be great to see them graduate in December.”

Story Re-published from JCAP