Canterbury planted the early seeds of humanitarian work in Chris Okelo ’96, and on Thursday, he returned to campus as a United Nations’ Team Site Coordinator in South Sudan! Speaking at School Meeting as a “Saint Off the Hill,” Chris shared with students his experiences as a tireless peacemaker for the UN.
After presenting a brief history of the UN, Chris described the inter-communal conflict found in South Sudan and current conditions in the different regions where he has worked—first as a Civil Affairs Officer in Sudan’s Juba and Nyala, and now in his role on a UN peacekeeping mission in the Greater Pibor Administrative Area of South Sudan.
“My job is grassroots community engagement—to go out and talk to people, understand what the issues are, and then try to come up with solutions within the mandate of the UN while adhering to the laws and regulations of the host country,” Chris explained. “Peace is made at the grassroots level, and you build up from there.”
His responsibilities in South Sudan are substantial. He coordinates UN field activities with national and state governments, armed militia groups, Civil Society Organizations, traditional leaders, political parties, and more—all to address security and development challenges in line with UN mandates. Chris also develops models for peace building, governance and extension of state authority, and rule of law. And that just scratches the surface of his many duties on the ground.
The presentation was particularly meaningful for History and Sciences Teacher Stephen Hewston, Faculty Advisor for the Model UN student organization. “I am so happy our students were able to meet someone who is making an impact globally,” he said. “It is great that Canterbury sparked Chris’s interest in helping the global community. Having the Model UN students—and the entire school—learning from his life experiences is invaluable.”
Chris encouraged students to go beyond the five- or 10-minute news reports for information because they tend to leave things out; there is usually so much more to the story. “What have I learned? Read, read, read, read…and then read some more! Take advantage of the easy access to information you have,” he said. “Focus on what is in front of you. Keep your mind and feet in the same place.”
He concluded with further words of advice. “Practice empathy and develop perspective when solving problems. Try and understand why other people do things,” Chris shared. “Identify your intellectual, personal, and emotional strengths and weaknesses and continue to work on your attitude. Like an athlete, you have to train your attitude to be positive every day. Put your faith in ideas and principles and not individual personalities. You are the future voters, the future leaders of the country. The way you want to shape the world is all up to you.”
Chris’s message made a strong impression on Model UN member Serena Bacetti ’26. “The presentation was so informative and powerful and spoke very deeply to everyone in the room,” she shared. “As I was watching, I thought, ‘Wow. I am sitting here in School Meeting, living my normal life while people are out there suffering and scared, and nobody is paying any attention to it.’ The kind of work Mr. Okelo is doing in South Sudan is definitely something I want to focus on in other areas of the world in the future.”
Following his talk, Chris spent the day on campus visiting history classes and having lunch with the Model UN students. We are so grateful to Chris for taking the time to talk with and inspire our students.