Mount Mercy University Hosts Former Gang Member Turned Doctoral Student

Mount Mercy University recently hosted a former gang member turned doctoral student to share his story of overcoming obstacles to ultimately earning his PhD. Jason Sole was a former drug dealer, street gang member, and three-time convicted felon that was raised in Chicago. Sole turned to a gang early on his life in order to feel authority and financial stability that he could not find elsewhere. As a result of this, Sole was incarcerated several times over the course of his life. There came a point when Sole recognized he needed to make changes in his life, this is when he turned to education and earned his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Science degrees in criminal justice and is currently completing his dissertation to complete his doctorate in public safety.

Mount Mercy students noted that “they felt compelled to bring Jason to campus because of everything that has been going on in the country, and what has happened in the past and what continues to happen. It is not often that those in the black community are given a second chance at life once placed in the criminal justice system. Jason is a living testimony of that.”

To read more of this event, visit Mount Mercy news.

Catholic Colleges and Universities Embody the Spirit of Thanksgiving

The season of Thanksgiving is a time when people gather together in unity to offer gratitude and reflect on the many ways that God has blessed them. Thanksgiving is also a time to offer one’s prayers, time, and energy to serve those living on the margins of society. Giving back to the local or global community is one way that you can show gratitude for the many blessings in your life. During this season of Thanksgiving, we look at how Catholic colleges and universities are living out this call by giving back to their local communities.

Creighton University is engaging the student body and citizens of the local Omaha community by coming together to support and aid people experiencing homelessness. According to the university, “On any given night in the Omaha/Council Bluffs area, approximately 1,500 people are experiencing homelessness.” Project Homeless Connect Omaha (PHCO) came about as a reaction to this issue. Creighton is the first college campus to use the Project Homeless Connect model, a unique campus-to-community effort that has seen major success throughout the nation. PHCO is “dedicated to serving individuals experiencing homelessness by providing health screenings and access to community resources in one convenient location,” notes the project’s website. It serves people experiencing homelessness through both immediate and long-term relief in order to help them overcome their homelessness rather than temporarily relieve their situation. Project staffers invite campus and community members to participate in this large-scale event. Students, faculty, staff, and other volunteers help with setting up before the event and cleaning up afterward, act as navigators assisting guests and offering directions, and serve in any other ways needed. PHCO allows for the entire campus community to serve those experiencing homelessness in an empowering and effective way.

The services provided through PHCO fall into two categories: programs and assistance, and health screenings. The programs and assistance offered include veterans programs; state, local, and federal assistance programs; housing programs; and legal, educational, and résumé help. Clients have the opportunity to meet with professionals in their field and schedule follow-up appointments. The health screenings include dental, physical and mental exams, vision assessments, and immunizations, as well as numerous other screenings and evaluations. PHCO gives clients access to necessary services that would otherwise not be available to them and are often times overlooked. For example, according to the PHCO 2017 guest survey results, of the 558 guests that attended PHCO, about 15 percent noted dental services as the most valuable screenings offered because they are normally among the more difficult services to access for those who are homeless. The flood of positive messages found among the survey results is an indication that the Omaha community is extremely grateful for this opportunity offered by Creighton University.

GIVEDay2017_20170916_119Gannon University students serve at the university’s annual Give Day.

Another university that continually emphasizes its commitment to giving back to the local community is Gannon University. The university program Erie-Gannon Alliances to Improve Neighborhood Sustainability (Erie-GAINS) has intensified Gannon’s commitment to the Erie community. Established in 2010, Erie-GAINS “is a long-term, mutually beneficial community initiative designed to expand Gannon’s efforts to support the common good of surrounding neighborhoods [and] aids the university in focusing efforts to maximize impact in a well-defined, contiguous and manageable area,” as noted on the website. The five primary urban development issues Erie-GAINS focuses on are education, health and wellness, business and economy, environmental sustainability, and quality of life. Students participate in Erie-GAINS through a variety of ways, such as by creating a comprehensive, online Human Services Directory, which is a resource to showcase services provided in Erie County; by providing free physicals for residents and neighbors of the Housing Authority of the City of Erie’s John E. Horan Garden Apartments and MidCity Towers; and by creating a county garden to grow produce that is then donated to local food pantries and organizations. Gannon’s annual “Give Day” also allows for students from different majors who participate in Erie-GAINS to come together as a community for one day to give back to the town of Erie. Many other examples of service can be found by viewing the Erie-Gains Viewbook 2016. Gannon University’s dedication to a value-centered education allows for the campus to develop a partnership with the local Erie community as a way to give back in a variety of ways.

Another university actively responding to the call of action during the season of Thanksgiving is Boston College. The Boston College student organization Rallying Against Contemporary Human Trafficking (R.E.A.C.T) seeks to “raise awareness about human trafficking and how it is one of the most egregious social justice problems of our time,” explains the group on its Facebook page. R.E.A.C.T. notes that its “focus in particular is on human trafficking within the city of Boston, so to connect students with direct action within the anti-trafficking movement in Boston.” One way that R.E.A.C.T. lived this mission out was by partnering with local Boston outreach ministry Bags of Hope Ministries. According to founder Jasmine Grace, Bags of Hope was founded “as a way to reach out in a practical way to women living on the streets or in programs serving women affected by trafficking, prostitution, addiction and homelessness.” Boston College partnered with Bags of Hope by collecting necessary items such as socks, toothpaste, and toothbrushes and packing them into bags for the women.  This partnership allowed students to aid those in their local community in a direct and immediate way.

In Florida, Saint Leo University is acting on its mission to be a “living-learning-serving community” by giving back to people with disabilities in the local community. The university partnered with local Florida non-profit Caps of Love, which uses recycling in order to provide valuable resources for people with disabilities. According to founder Valerie Mathieu, Caps of Love is dedicated to “educating the public on how to identify and recycle correctly in order to provide wheelchairs to the physically challenged under the age of 21.” One day last spring, Saint Leo University collected 12,000 pounds of plastic bottle caps, filling 21 pallets. Students, faculty, staff, and local community members gathered together to sort the caps and then loaded a truck that delivered them to a Tampa recycling center. The proceeds received from the recycling center were then donated to Caps of Love, where the funds ultimately will aid those in the community seeking access to wheelchairs. Senior coordinator for residence life Heidi D’Ambrosio commented, “Saint Leo University participates in this program to promote giving of our time and realizing that together as a community we can make a difference.”

Another university dedicated to giving back is Mount Mercy University. One way that Mount Mercy gives back to the local Cedar Rapids community is through its partnership with Foundation 2 Youth Shelter. According to the goals of Foundation 2 Youth Shelter, it is “designed to restore appropriate parent-child roles; explore solutions to troubling issues and build skills in order to prevent or resolve future conflicts; and focus on preventing runaway behavior, suicide attempts, child abuse, family breakup, school failure, or the placement of a runaway or homeless youth.” Students who volunteer at the shelter give their time each week by spending evenings with youth mentoring, playing games, and getting to know each other. The partnership between Mount Mercy and Foundation 2 Youth Shelter allows those at the shelter to see the possibilities that life offers. It also encourages them to grow in their values, dream, and envision their future.

It is important to reflect on different ways that Catholic colleges and universities are giving back to their local communities because it leads us to reflect on how we are servings the needs of those in our communities. Thanksgiving offers the perfect opportunity to do this, as a season of unity and a time to reflect on our many blessings.

Catholic Higher Education: In Solidarity With Migrants

Mount Mercy University
Mount Mercy University students during their immersion trip to El Paso, Texas

With the 2016 U.S. presidential race already underway, candidates are discussing their ideas regarding the social, economic, and political issues facing America, many of which are of great concern to the Catholic Church. One of most prominent issues is immigration. Shortly after launching his presidential campaign in June 2015, for instance, Donald Trump made controversial statements about Mexican immigrants, characterizing them as drug dealers, criminals, and rapists, ending with, “Some, I assume, are good people.”

Such harsh statements about people who seek a better life in the United States come from an unfortunate public misconception and general lack of knowledge regarding the complexity of immigration. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explains in Strangers No Longer Together on the Journey of Hope that the decision to migrate is strongly influenced by factors such as poverty, injustice, religious intolerance, and armed-conflict in other countries. The Catholic Church has spoken strongly regarding the importance of welcoming immigrants who pursue the American dream of safety, opportunity, stability, and freedom, while also working to address the root causes of migration.  Recognizing the need for reform of both political policies and individual hearts, Catholic higher education, along with the Catholic Church, provides students with the information and experiences to learn more about migration.

As the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis frequently speaks about the importance of respectful treatment of migrants. In his message on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees in 2015, the pope asserted, “Often … migration gives rise to suspicion and hostility, even in ecclesial communities, prior to any knowledge of the migrants’ lives or their stories of persecution and destitution. In such cases, suspicion and prejudice conflict with the biblical commandment of welcoming with respect and solidarity the stranger in need.” The Catholic Church affirms the importance of standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, regardless of immigration status, as we are all part of one human family, created in the image of God. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explains in their public policy statement on immigration reform that we must welcome the foreigner and show respect for every person as part of their inherent human dignity, following Jesus’ prophetic proclamation, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).

Guided by Catholic Social Teaching, Catholic higher education stands in solidarity with migrants, educating students about the reasons why migration occurs and supporting communities through service and advocacy for immigration reform.  Catholic colleges and universities have undertaken activities to support immigrants and immigration reform such as establishing scholarships for students from immigrant backgrounds, welcoming undocumented immigrant students, and promoting educational opportunities for students to encounter the experience of migrants and the difficult journey they face. One example of a powerful educational opportunity is Cabrini College’s project titled, “#RefugeesSeekingSafety.”

Funded by the Global Solidarity Grants program sponsored by ACCU and Catholic Relief Services, the #RefugeesSeekingSafety project led participants through an innovative 25-minute simulation of the experience of unaccompanied minors fleeing from violence in Central America by coming to the United States. The simulation was originally designed by a freshman social justice course, “Our Interdependent World.” The grant from ACCU and CRS helped students from the class, Cabrini Catholic Relief Services Ambassadors, and members of the Cabrini Mission Corps edit and expand the draft of the simulation and create a website to promote and share the simulation. The students debuted the final simulation in spring 2015, when more than 75 participants got a glimpse of the situations and options that minors face at the U.S.-Mexico border. The group reflected on the root causes of migration; learned about advocacy programs, ranging from social media tags to petitions to Congress; and gathered for a solidarity prayer-walk. These participants gained a better understanding of the issues that refugees seeking safety face and learned how they can support change and take action on immigration reform.

Similar to this Cabrini program, another example of a powerful educational opportunity is Mount Mercy University’s project, “Standing in Solidarity with Migrants.” Also funded by the Global Solidarity Grants program, this project engaged students, faculty, and the community in educational opportunities to learn, reflect, and take action on immigration issues. First, Sr. Kathleen Erickson, RSM, spoke about her personal experiences with immigration, both as an assistant at a center for immigrant women and as an immersion coordinator. The lecture helped students understand the causes and effects of migration. The following day, the community came together to pray for migrants in an interfaith service and participated in a workshop to reflect on their experiences. The group wrote letters to their representatives advocating for comprehensive immigration reform centered on the fair and just treatment of humans. Lastly, staff, faculty, and students were given the opportunity to experience the lives of migrants through a four-day immersion trip to the U.S.-Mexico Border in El Paso, TX. While staying in a migrant shelter, participants discussed immigration with U.S. Border Patrol representatives, listened to stories of migrants and refugees, met with human rights activists, and visited historical and cultural sites. The four-day immersion trip to El Paso brought together faith, reflection, and action, connecting the complex discussion of immigration to the participants’ spiritual beliefs.

Prior to experiencing either of these initiatives, many of the participants had little to no knowledge about migration. At the completion of these projects, participants had gained invaluable insights, grown spiritually, and developed skills to advocate for solidarity. Both institutions plan to continue their advocacy for migrants. Cabrini College designed a website to share the simulation experience with other students, campuses, and the public to inform them on the perilous journey that refugees face. The #RefugeesSeekingSafety website is also intended to broaden the opportunity for visitors to recreate the experience, learn how to advocate, and take action on immigration reform.

Mount Mercy student Katelyn Bishop explains that after participating in her university’s project, her “eyes are opened to the harsh reality that many immigrants face in the world today.”  The Mount Mercy Social Justice Club, a student group, plans to continue advocating for solidarity and educating fellow students on the topic of immigration next year. Upon returning from the immersion trip to El Paso, Mount Mercy student Abby Herd reflected on her life-changing experience and her plans to continue advocating for immigrants: “I am raising my voice for the thousands that can’t, the thousands of people suffering, the thousands of people that are dying because of a fence that cages people in. I am a voice for the voiceless. Will you be?”

Kathryn Roarty is a 2015 graduate of Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland.  She interned with ACCU in summer 2015.