Nicole Shirilla will discuss her relief work when she speaks to the Class of '05.
YOUNGSTOWN -- At age 27, Youngstown native Nicole Shirilla has already seen parts of the world that most Americans will never experience.
The 1996 Cardinal Mooney High graduate will share stories of her work with relief efforts in Rwanda, India, Nigeria and Thailand when she gives the graduation address for her alma mater's Class of 2005 today. The ceremony starts at 10 a.m. in Stambaugh Auditorium.
"I have a deep sense of gratitude for everything I've experienced," said Shirilla, who said she had never been outside North America before going to Rwanda with Catholic Relief Services in September 2003. "I believe that everything you do leads you somewhere, and these haven't been random things that have just happened to me."
That visit to Rwanda, where she saw the lingering aftermath of the genocide of a decade ago, started her on a path that's taken her to some of the world's most troubled locations.
Just this year, she's spent time volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India, working in the ministry founded by Mother Teresa. And she's seen the devastation left by the tsunami in Southeast Asia.
"I've stood in the midst of one of the biggest man-made disasters in history, and also one of the biggest natural disasters," she said.
But she says that seeing people's pain and suffering has left her with a positive message.
"I think that's rooted in my faith," she said. "It's truly been life-changing."
An act of forgiveness
The Rwandan experience brought her into personal contact with many survivors of -- and some of the perpetrators of -- the genocide in which a million people were killed, sometimes by friends and family members.
"I met a man and a woman who were neighbors, and the man had killed the woman's son," she said. "He asked for her forgiveness, and she forgave him. It's been a gift to be able to see acts of redemption like that."
She said that she was also touched by her work with Mother Teresa's ministry for the dying in Calcutta and by seeing the AIDS crisis in Nigeria and tsunami victims in Southeast Asia.
"I went to a Sri Lankan village and saw a lot of fragments of families, where some members of the families had been killed. People told us that they just wanted to stay together."
She said that those affected by the tsunami appreciated American contributions to relief efforts.
"They welcomed us, and I think they're aware of the generosity of the American people."
Changed her perspective
Shirilla said that her experiences abroad helped her to become aware of inequalities in the world.
"We don't know just how much we have, being able to live in the United States," she said. "With some of the living conditions I saw, I just felt like I was in a different world."
Shirilla is the daughter of Mary Ann and Greg Shirilla of Youngstown. She graduated from the University of Notre Dame with both bachelor's and master's degrees. She is taking additional course work there to prepare for medical school entrance examinations.
"My trips have helped me to think about my own life and what I want to do as my life's work," she said.
Shirilla said she was excited about coming back to Cardinal Mooney for graduation, and she said she may use the I Corinthians 13, known as the Bible's "love chapter," as the basis for her talk.
"I feel that I have a message, and to carry it back to Youngstown is really special," she said.