Each fall, the University community celebrates and honors St. Thomas, the Augustinian bishop of Valencia, Spain and patron of the University. To kick off the celebration, in conjunction with the One Book program, the University welcomed Martin Ganda, a 2007 Villanova graduate and author of “I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives.” This past Thursday evening, the Villanova Room teemed with One Book members, faculty, staff and a range of students—from Villanova graduates to a group of eighth graders from St. Katharine of Siena. As the room rumbled with excitement and various copies of the novel passed through hands in the crowd, Ganda walked to the podium and began to speak just after six o’clock.

He began with a brief introduction of himself, his book, and Caitlyn—his pen-pal and “best friend” who composed the memoir with him. Then, as to set the scene before telling his story, he described his life before he met Caitlyn. Ganda grew up in Mutare, Zimbabwe. Mutare is the fourth largest city in the country with a population of roughly 450,000 people. Ganda painted a picture of a life nothing like that of our own.

Every morning, Ganda and his siblings would carry a bucket of water from the local well for cooking and cleaning. In each photo Ganda showed, he and his siblings rarely wore shoes and shared most of the clothing they owned. Each night Ganda, his parents, and his siblings would share a single mattress.

In 1997, Caitlyn, a young girl living in the suburbs of Pennsylvania, sent her first letter to Zimbabwe within a program started by one of her teachers. Little did she know, this was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Over the next six years, Caitlyn and Ganda sent a number of letters across the Atlantic as they worked towards finding a scholarship for him to travel to the U.S. for college. After months of Ganda sending applications and Caitlyn calling universities, Ganda was the first student to receive a full ride to Villanova University. As drastically different as Ganda’s life was, there was something so familiar about his experience. He laughed as he remembered smuggling pints of ice cream out of Spit, and gaining the ‘freshman fifteen’—or freshman thirty as he recalled—and cranking the heat in O’Dwyer Hall all through winter.

While he spoke with hysterical jokes and contagious energy, he reminded all us Villanovans just how lucky we were and inspired the whole crowd. When asked how he adjusted to life at Villanova after seeing the life his peers lived, he answered, “it inspired me...I always thought if someone can do it, I can do it [too].” He encouraged the audience to look at the world differently, and stressed one message over the rest: You don’t have to have a big name to make a difference. Caitlyn was only 12 years old when she began writing her letters and it was her persistence, her genuine care that helped change not only Ganda’s life, but is still changing the lives of children each day.

Today, Ganda has an M.B.A. from Duke University, currently leads as the CEO of Tamuka Group and is the president of Seeds of Africa, a non-profit organization focused on educating disadvantaged students in Zimbabwe. He has since purchased a new home for his family, and is now the godfather to one of Caitlyn’s daughters.

As Ganda’s speech drew to a close and the standing ovation settled, he began excitedly signing copies of books and shaking hands with audience members. If you haven’t already, be sure to pick up a copy of Ganda and Caitlyn’s “I Will Always Write Back” where you can follow their whole story and even read copies of their original letters. And if you are feeling truly inspired, you can pick an envelope on the first floor of Old Falvey to start your own pen-pal relationship and, hopefully, make an impact of your own.