Wittenberg professor, Scott Rosenberg, sits in front of the flag of the African nation of Lesotho Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. In May, the king of Lesotho will visit the Wittenberg campus. Bill Lackey/Staff

A South African king will be visiting Springfield this month. Here’s why.

Next Saturday, Wittenberg University’s graduating class of 2018 will don their caps and gowns and convene in the “Commencement Hollow,” joined by a distinguished — and uncommon — keynote speaker: King Letsie III, the Constitutional Monarch of the southern African Kingdom of Lesotho.

“It’s not every day a king comes to your graduation,” said Scott Rosenberg, a history professor at Wittenberg.

The country, with a population of just over 2 million people, is contained entirely within South Africa. Landlocked and mountainous, the country’s lowest point is higher than that of any other country in the world.

READ MORE: College students strengthen Springfield-Lesotho relationship

It’s a place that Rosenberg fell in love with when he was 21, three weeks after his college graduation, when he was sent there to work with an agricultural co-op as a Peace Corps Volunteer. After his two-year assignment with the Peace Corps, Rosenberg thought he would never come back to Lesotho.

But, more than two decades later, Rosenberg has returned many times, first as a Fulbright Scholar, then for further research, and, now, as the leader of student service trips.

Rosenberg first proposed making a service trip to Lesotho when he was an advisor for Wittenberg’s Habitat for Humanity chapter.

“The first trip that we did, we pretty much spent three weeks digging pit latrines,” Rosenberg said. “It was hard work.”

After that trip, he thought that every four years he could find about 20 students to participate, but he quickly realized that Wittenberg students’ interest far outpaced that estimate.

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“Right after the first trip, I had students coming into my office saying, ‘When are you going again?’” he said.

Since 2003, about 400 Wittenberg students have traveled to Lesotho through 14 different service trips, and many more have participated in the Lesotho Nutrition Initiative, a student-led nonprofit that sends meals to children in Lesotho.

Lesotho is one of the world’s poorest countries and also faces one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDs. Those factors, combined with poor soil and climatic conditions, make malnutrition, especially among children, a primary issue. In 2013, the country’s government announced that over half a million children in Lesotho suffered from malnutrition.

Rosenberg estimates that the Lesotho Nutrition Initiative has packed about 650,000 meals since it was founded three years ago.

Senior Maddy O’Malley became the initiative’s event coordinator after she traveled to Lesotho during her winter break of 2015-16. She, like Rosenberg, fell in love with Lesotho, its people and its culture.

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“I think one thing that really describes was Lesotho is like is that, in their language, there isn’t a word for ‘stranger,’” O’Malley said.

O’Malley, who is graduating next week, is going back to Lesotho, as a Youth Empowerment HIV/AIDs Volunteer with the Peace Corps.

The country of Lesotho has become important to many students in her graduating class — either through participation in service trips, fundraising for service trips or the Lesotho Nutrition Initiative — that O’Malley said the idea of having King Letsie III deliver their commencement address was immediately met with enthusiasm.

“The class of 2018 has been so interconnected with Lesotho,” O’Malley said. “And when we thought about the possibility of the king of Lesotho coming to talk to us, from a country that means so much to us, we would do anything to make that happen.”

King Letsie III will arrive on Friday, May 11, along with several other dignitaries including his wife, Queen ‘Masenate, and Lesotho’s foreign minister, ambassador to the United States and archbishop.

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That night, current and former students will have the opportunity to meet and mingle with the honored guests at a barbecue. The commencement ceremony begins at 11:30 a.m. the next day.

After commencement, Springfield’s Rotary Club will host a reception and dinner. On Sunday, the king and queen and other guests will attend Mass at St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Springfield.

Before returning to Lesotho, the king will also attend the Rotary Club’s Monday luncheon.

For almost a decade, Springfield’s Rotary Club has helped children orphaned by HIV/AIDs in Lesotho through fundraising projects and service trips. The club was connected with Rosenberg while searching for an international project and, since then, the Rotary Club has continued to build upon Springfield’s relationship with Lesotho.

The Rotary Club has also sponsored the college education two Lesotho women, Neo Mosoeunyane and Lemohang Mokhalinyane, who are attending Wittenberg University and Clark State Community College, respectively.

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