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Alumna Uses Gifts North Park Helped Her to Realize

Claudia (Sena) Freed

CHICAGO, IL (December 4, 2007) – Claudia (Sena) Freed, as much as anyone, is amazed at the trajectory of her life.

Symbolically, the realization of how far she has come occurs in surprising places, such as when Freed is riding in the elevator up to her office. Seeing her face reflected in the buttons, "that's when it happens," she says.

Hers is the story of a person with a strong desire to rise above her circumstances but also the power of generosity to change another's life. Having received assistance from people she didn’t know at crucial points in her life, the former exchange student and this year's Distinguished Alumna of North Park University is making sure others get the same opportunities she had.

When Freed C'85 came to the States in the early 1980s, she was the first person to receive a new scholarship being offered to a student attending North Park. She since has been nationally recognized for her business acumen and now oversees the Educational Assistance, Ltd. (EAL) scholarship fund — the very fund that enabled her to continue her education — which has made more than $100,000 available to North Park and more than $11 million to other schools for scholarships. Recently, she was named to be the volunteer chair of the Community Advisory Council of public radio station WBEZ in Chicago.

Freed was one of four girls in her family, which lived in a rural village in Argentina. Her life was shaken as an early teen when her father died suddenly of a heart attack. "It marked my life with an essential sense of responsibility," she says. "Losing your father robs you of what you think life should be."

But Freed also always was energetic and highly curious. That, combined with her desire to make life better for herself, she participated in a student exchange program when she was 17 that brought her to the home of David and Sharon Held, members of the Evangelical Covenant Church in Lafayette, Indiana. "They opened their homes to many exchange students," Freed recalls. "They thought it was good for their own high school children, too."

She speaks with a fond admiration for the family, who visited the families of every exchange student. They joked, however, that they would never take another Argentinean, Freed says while laughing. "I arrived in January wearing sandals and rings on every finger!"

Freed appreciated that the Held family had faith in her at a time when people expected European exchange students to succeed but not those from South America. She did well during her time, but recalls she eventually became homesick after four months in the United States. "At that point, the novelty of being in a foreign country wears on you, and you have two months to go and you miss your family."

Freed returned to Argentina at the end of the exchange program but returned to West Lafayette to attend Purdue University, where she would study to become a physician. But the young woman found that the language barrier almost became too much of an obstacle.

"I was overreaching," she says of enrolling in such a difficult program at a school that, with 30,000 students, was too large for her. "I needed a place that was more responsive." Used to getting As, Freed struggled to achieve Cs and Ds.

Adding to her stress, the Falklands War in her native country was raging. "I would watch TV every day to see if I would recognize someone."

Finally, Freed made the decision to drop out but was weighed down by the feeling that she was going to disappoint her family as well as herself. But the Held family helped her get a position as a counselor at Covenant Harbor Bible Camp and Conference Center in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, so that she could use the time to decide what her next steps should be.

One weekend day, which should have been her day off, she decided to help wait tables for camp guests. One of the guests looked up from his table and asked, "Say, aren't you the Argentinean girl who is living with the Helds?"

The man, Verlyn "Swede" Roskam, knew David Held from business dealings. He suggested Freed apply for a new scholarship he and friends were putting together and which would assist a student attending North Park.

"He's a sweet and gentle person," Freed says. "It was consistent with his style of being very personable and his ability to convey to me that I have potential."

Roskam and his wife, Martha, also helped Freed to re-evaluate her skills, which would suit her well in the business world. "They gently guided me to a whole new area I had never thought about," she says.

Martha Roskam also would send her notes on "pretty stationery," Freed says. "They meant a lot to a poor kid from Argentina. They conveyed to me that I was not alone. That cannot be underestimated." The note-writing was "a small act . . . that would make such a big difference in my life." Freed has kept the notes.

Freed is grateful for the education she received at North Park. "This place embraced me, and it gave me a life of significance and service," she said at the Homecoming Banquet earlier this year, when she received the Distinguished Alumna award. "North Park allowed me to find out what my gifts are."

Freed would go on to make a name for herself in the business world and was noted in national publications such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. In 1995 she was asked to be executive director of EAL. Although she could earn more money elsewhere, Freed has a strong desire to continue leading the fund that made her current life possible.

That commitment was exemplified when she took no salary for six months when EAL, like other nonprofits, saw their income drop sharply after 9/11. "Sometimes you have to do extreme things to deal with extreme problems."

Freed says, "Much of what I've done has been driven by wanting to be ethical, moral, and compassionate. By what is my responsibility as a human being."

(SF)