Christopher Stewart '09

B.A. History, Law Student

Fighting Irish fighting disease

During his freshman year at Notre Dame, Chris Stewart, an offensive guard for the Fighting Irish, took a class on communicable diseases with Rev. Tom Streit, C.S.C., director of Notre Dame’s Haiti Program, During the course, Father Streit discussed eradicating lymphatic filariasis and these classroom discussions piqued Stewart’s interest in the disease and the perils of one of the poorest nations in the world.

“After I took that class, I was more interested in the Notre Dame Haiti Program,” Stewart says.

Lymphatic filariasis is a parasitic disease caused by microscopic, thread-like worms. The disease, transmitted by mosquitoes, can cause swelling and decreased function of the lymph system, making it difficult for the body to fight germs and infections. Affected persons will have more bacterial infections in the skin and lymph system, causing hardening and thickening of the skin, known as elephantiasis. Lymphatic filariasis affects more than 120 million people in 80 countries throughout the tropics and subtropics of Asia, Africa the Western Pacific and part of the Caribbean and South America.

As a history major, Stewart had the opportunity to study Haiti and the diseases that have affected it. Over spring break his sophomore year, he was given the chance to visit Haiti and see firsthand the projects begun by the program.

During his weeklong visit to Haiti, the Spring, Texas native conducted research, learned the logistics of the Notre Dame Haiti program and toured facilities geared toward eradicating lymphatic filariasis.

But it wasn’t just the illness that brought Stewart to Haiti.

“One thing I studied in my concentration with Haiti is this interesting dynamic. Haiti started out as a French colony, as the richest colony of all colonies. So this little island produced 10, 20, 30 times the wealth as the Americas, India, and numerous other places. How does this country go from all this wealth to being the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere?” he wondered.

Although seeing the disease up close had an effect on Stewart, it was the poverty that truly changed him.

“I’m from a lower-middle class background. I’ve seen poverty before, but there’s nothing like seeing an entire nation so poor. Something like 80 percent of the country is below the poverty line. I’ve never seen poverty on that scale,” Stewart recalls.

Stewart credits the Haiti experience as a motivation to push himself harder than ever.

“Being there taught me you just have to go hard in as many different directions as you can without spreading yourself too thin before the doors close," Stewart says. "There’s no reason not to.”

Stewart’s efforts in the classroom reflect that philosophy very well. He graduated in 3.5 years with a 3.5 GPA and a degree in history and later became the only Division 1 football player also enrolled in law school. That designation is the reason his challenging schedule was chronicled in USA Today.

Of the 4.5 years Stewart attended Notre Dame, he says, “Meeting great people at Notre Dame was probably the best experience I had my entire time in college. I had friends in the dorms, on various teams, and on my football team. Literally everywhere I turned, I knew someone and that was a great thing for me. I was able to get a perspective not only as an athlete who was a student but also of a student who was an athlete. Believe me they're different!”