Alex Coccia (pictured) along with Marta Stepien have been named the Notre Dame fencers of the month for September.

Teaching, Serving, Fencing...Alex Coccia's Journey In East Africa

June 7, 2011

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Alexander Coccia, a fencer with the University of Notre Dame program who just recently completed his freshman year with the team, enjoyed tremendous team success in his first campaign on the strip with the Irish. This season, Coccia finished the year with a record of 20-7 while competing for the Irish in sabre. Along with this, he also was part of not only the first Midwest Fencing Conference team to win all six team gold medals, but also got to experience an NCAA Team Championship in 2011, the eighth in program history.

For Coccia, however, it is what he will experience off the strip this summer that will help shape the man he is outside the field of competition. Coccia hopes to take with him the lessons of leadership and camaraderie he learned from his first year with the Notre Dame team this summer as he takes on a totally different endeavor, teaching the sport he loves so much to those less fortunate in Africa. Coccia’s journey got underway Tuesday as he arrived in Entebbe to begin his six week long endeavor.

The idea of spending the summer in Uganda came about after Coccia’s father, Peter, a 1972 Notre Dame graduate, and mother, Nena Couch, heard Oscar McBride (’95) talk at an alumni luncheon in Columbus, Ohio. McBride spoke about his experience coaching flag-football in Uganda last summer with athletics department staff member, Kevin Dugan. Dugan, who has recently transitioned into a new role as Manager of Youth and Community Programs, began meeting on a weekly basis to talk about current events in Africa and eventually outlined the plan for Coccia to have a unique service experience coaching fencing with Dugan’s organization, Fields of Growth, a humanitarian organization that collaborates with community-based organizations in rural villages of Uganda.

“Alex has an incredible intellectual and spiritual depth to him,” Dugan remarks. “By the time he left he was speaking solid conversational Luganda. I have no doubt he is going to have a soulful and enriching experience.”

Coccia, a member of the Glynn Family Honors Program at Notre Dame, earned the funding to make this journey possible through the Honors Program as well as the Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement, of which he acknowledges he is greatly indebted to.

“I am very honored to be able to serve as an intern with Fields of Growth this summer,” Coccia says. “I was eager to travel the summer after freshman year as a way to explore different African cultures. By having this immersion experience, I will gain a better understanding of the relationship of culture, law, and justice, as they vary between Uganda and Rwanda. I have decided to major in Africana Studies and Peace Studies. My trip to Uganda and Rwanda will be an eye opening opportunity. My goal is to experience as much as I can, to listen, and to learn.

Coccia also has received incredible support from his Head Coach, Janusz Bednarski, who he credits with his inspiration to share the game of fencing around the globe. “Coach Bednarski has done so much to promote the game of fencing around the world, and is himself an incredibly worldly, educated man,” Coccia says of his coach. “When you look at his background, you have to respect and be inspired by his record as someone of great academic and athletic prowess. He has been incredibly supportive of my trip and has helped me collect donations for the village. I am so grateful for the encouragement I have received from him.

“I have been interested in Africa as a region since eighth grade when I began to hear about the genocide in Darfur,” Coccia continues. “I began to read to inform myself about the issues in the area and expanded my reading to learn a great deal about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The phenomenon of genocide struck a chord because it seemed incomprehensible to me. As a sophomore in high school I founded a social justice group to raise awareness about the genocide in Darfur and to fundraise for Catholic Relief Services and their efforts in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) and refugee camps. I have always held a firm belief in the Catholic Social Teaching of an option for the poor and vulnerable. I also believe that part of that option is appreciating the beauty in different cultures.”

Though Coccia’s voyage begins the moment he arrives at Entebbe, his real experience gets underway Wednesday when he arrives in Kkindu Village in the Masaka District of Uganda. After getting his first day to familiarize himself with his new surroundings, he will begin his mission of familiarizing the local children with the sport of fencing while also teaching Social Studies at the Field of Growth – HOPEFUL School for orphans and vulnerable children.

While Coccia will call Kkindu his “home base” for the majority of his stay and will eventually help put together a fencing tournament for the children before he departs back for the states, he also will get the chance to experience several other aspects of the African culture. Whether getting a chance to collaborate on a home building project for the Batwa Pygmies, visiting a prison in Kigali to pray with criminals convicted in the Rwandan Genocide or teaching the sport he loves to AIDS orphans, Coccia will gather immeasurable experiences during his stay in Africa.

One of the side tasks Coccia will undertake while completing his time in Africa is to share his experiences with those who are not there with him in person. He will be providing a live blog for all to view of his various endeavors. The blog can be found through and also is linked through on both the main page as well as the fencing page. For a complete itinerary of Coccia’s journey or if you’d like to donate money to the HOPEFUL School for orphans and vulnerable children, where Coccia will be teaching, you can visit his blog. Be sure to check back for updates from Alex on his journeys and experiences as he sends them in from East Africa.