Students return from the Summer Service Learning Program with new perspectives of poverty
This summer, 217 students devoted what might have otherwise been vacation time or time “on the clock” to perform service in the Catholic social tradition through the Summer Service Learning Program (SSLP).
SSLP, a third level theology class also titled “Confronting Social Issues,” provides students with the opportunity to engage in scholarly discussion and personal growth as they face issues of poverty and marginalization.
The SSLP differs drastically from the average three-credit course. Students prepare for their summer experience with “classwork” in the form of readings, written responses, and three class meetings, but the vast majority of their time is dedicated to 8 consecutive weeks of immersion in service.
Andrea Smith Shappel, Associate Director for Theological Reflection and Summer Service Learning at the Center for Social Concerns, is responsible for the administration of the SSLP program. She described to the Rover the program’s experiential nature and Catholic social tradition, and the unique effect it has on students’ experiences.
“The pedagogy of community-based learning, grounded for this course in Catholic social thought, recognizes that building relationships with people who live on the margins of society brings knowledge about people and social issues in ways that cannot be taught in a classroom setting. For instance, many students interact with people who live in poverty and hear about the difficult financial choices that they face daily.
“One student commented that she could read about the difficulty of choosing between paying for rent or food in a detached way but when she conversed with a woman who is struggling to make ends meet she was involved with her mind, heart and soul. The impact of such conversations often lead students to further study to better understand welfare, a living wage, health insurance, predatory loans, etc.”
Encouraged to live mindfully and make the most of their experiences, SSLP students learned the Examen, an Ignatian method of daily reflection and awareness.
The Examen entails five stages of reflection on the day’s past events: to recognize God’s presence throughout the day, to review the day with gratitude, to pay attention to one’s emotions, to pray about a particular moment, and to “look toward tomorrow.”
Senior Emily Hergenrother said that practicing the Examen influenced her perspective on her daily life beyond SSLP. She found it helpful “to find little instances of finding God; even if nothing really happened to you that day, still God was present in all the moments you had. It pushes you to be better. When you’re committed to praying about something at the end of the day, you’re more mindful of the consequences of your actions.”
In addition to the thoughtful method of the Examen, students encounter deep spiritual reflections and connections in their unique placements at the service sites themselves. This year, 111 Notre Dame Clubs across the country worked with SSLP students to place them in sites that provide service directly to groups of people who live in poverty or have developmental disabilities.
Once a student has been admitted into the SSLP, she attends a site placement interview. In this way, many students can discover sites that match their personal interest, talent, or major.
Hergenrother, a science-business, pre-med major, was placed at a site in her hometown, Houston, where she could apply her skills as a business major and pursue her interest in pediatric medicine. She served as a certified foster parent at Casa de Esperanza, a foster home community for young children who had been abused. She shared her challenges in a conversation with the Rover.
“In the foster care system you don’t have any say in what’s going to happen to the kids. At first it was hard coming to terms with that … At the beginning I struggled with the lack of control and not being able to do anything about it. In conversation with the other people that had been working there for a while and my site supervisor, they focused on making each child’s today the best it could be because that’s all you could control in that type of situation. In the bigger picture it helped me not be as worried about the future, and not focus on what I can’t control.”
Laura LeBrun, a junior majoring in economics and statistics, grappled with poverty at Hesed House, a homeless shelter in Aurora, Illinois. Hesed House is a low-threshold shelter, and LeBrun interacted closely with people from complicated backgrounds.
Had it not been for her SSLP experience, LeBrun said that she never would have experienced human suffering much further than ordinary school struggles. Her “displacement,” as she described this eye-opening experience, introduced her to people of innumerable types of backgrounds, including racial, economic, and spiritual experiences.
“There were a lot of people with addictions, alcoholism … some fights broke out,” LeBrun continued. “Then, whenever you had deeper conversations, you realized that it’s the only way they feel like they have a say in the world. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why people act the way they do. I came up with the conclusion that behind every bad action there’s some reason that you could never understand.
“The best way to go about things is knowing you can’t fully understand people’s thoughts and reasoning, so you might as well be kind because they may need that support.”
Victoria Velasquez is a sophomore majoring in English and FTT. Although she spent the summer working at an outdoor pool, she did not achieve a tan. Contact her at email@example.com.
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