Embodying the Season of Lent: Students Take Action and Advocacy into Their Own Hands

January 15 presents the opportunity to reflect on the service and life of Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King was a man grounded in faith, service, and love. A civil rights activist rooted in his Christian beliefs, Dr. King used the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience to fight against racial inequality and injustice, and advocate for an entire people. Reflecting on the life of Dr. King is the perfect way to enter into the liturgical season of Lent, a season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Lent offers the opportunity to give ourselves in service, which can be done by tending to the physical, mental, or spiritual needs of others. Across the country, students from Catholic colleges and universities are following in the footsteps of Dr. King — and responding to the Lenten call of almsgiving — by creating programs that benefit the most vulnerable of society.

Students at Seton Hill University are taking action and promoting fair trade through their online business, Gray Hemlock. According to co-founder Fitzgerald “Fitz” Robertson, Gray Hemlock is “the online marketplace for the most affordable women’s fair trade jewelry in all the world.” Robertson created Gray Hemlock in December 2016 with fellow student Halie Torris as a way to sell affordable jewelry. In January 2017, Robertson and Torris watched “The True Cost,” a documentary that “highlights some of the negative working conditions in which people in the manufacturing system work,” according to the students. After watching this film, they realized that Gray Hemlock could have contributed in a small way to the system shown in the film. As a result, the two students reinvented their business as an effort that supports humanity. They decided they would partner only with organizations that could guarantee that their products were made “with fair wages, proper working conditions, and no child labor,” according to Robertson. It is also essential that artisan groups that partner with Gray Hemlock benefit from the profits. This is done by showing images to consumers that allow them to recognize that there are real people making all of the jewelry, people with families and struggles. There are also opportunities for artisans to take courses on topics such as financial literacy and healthful eating.

Seton Hill has been a campus that has given Robertson and Torris the opportunity to flourish as business partners. The two students credit their professors for helping them “inside and outside of the classroom” by providing coursework relevant to their interests in fair trade and by providing advice and resources. Gray Hemlock has also been a great platform to inform others about the importance of fair trade. Torris notes that “most people don’t know [what fair trade is] unless it’s explained on a basic level,” which is why the two students have started a conversation about fair trade through their business, which is rooted in service, love, and advocacy.

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Students from St. Edward’s University are also taking the act of serving others into their own hands by advocating for those in vulnerable situations. Students Carlos Alpuche, Ricardo Apanco-Sarabia, Gloria Perez, and Joseph Ramirez are co-founders of YOUnite, a nonprofit that helps immigrant students understand their rights. These four students had the idea to create YOUnite when they attended Austin’s LevelUp Institute and were instructed to create a start-up to help solve a social problem. YOUnite was originally founded to be a “web-based toolbox for immigrants looking to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)” protection. The students sought to make the application process “approachable, accessible, easy, and become the ‘TurboTax’ of DACA,” according to Ramirez.

The vision of YOUnite took a turn with the election of Donald Trump and the changing of national policy regarding DACA. According to the founders of YOUnite, they knew they needed to show students at St. Edward’s that “no matter what our political stance, we will stand together to find solutions.” In the months that followed, the students channeled their energy into a campus group that would meet the immediate needs of immigrants. They created “Monarchs on the Hilltop” in order to assist undocumented families on and off campus through a variety of services and resources. Ramirez notes that “Monarchs on the Hilltop” will “talk to leaders from the Diocese of Austin and Catholic Charities Austin to inform them of [Monarchs’] efforts regarding food access for students and how they hope the two groups could hopefully support them.” St. Edward’s has been an ideal campus for these students to serve the immigrant community because of its mission of social justice and advocacy.

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St. Catherine’s and St. Thomas joint School of Social Work professor Katharine Hill incorporates voting registration and engagement into her classes to empower clients to have a voice.” Photo by Mark Brown.

Professors at of St. Thomas are empowering students to advocate in the classroom and combine study and service. Katharine Hill, associate professor at St. Katherine’s and St. Thomas joint school of social work, has begun to “ as noted by St. Catherine’s and St.Thomas news article. Hill explains, “As social workers, we talk about needing to advocate for social policies that will help our clients. But we never talk about the fact that the people who make these decisions are elected officials, and that social workers should be a part of that.” By working directly with both policymakers and those experiencing homelessness, students are able to visualize their goal of enacting social change. They are given tools in the classroom that help analyze which populations are less likely to vote and why, and also the benefits that come from voting. Hill adds, “A lot of students had not thought about voting. But by the end of the semester, they felt a sense of power that comes with voting and understood how voting also recognizes their clients’ humanity.”

The second time Hill incorporated this project into her classroom was during the 2016 presidential election. Students visited the Salvation Army and The Link, a Minnesota nonprofit that supports young homeless people and families. “Students helped register individuals there to vote,” Hill explains, “and passed out information about local and state ballot items and how to get to polling places on Election Day.” Hill notes the sense of empowerment that students felt by telling people their voice matters. In the end, students registered 400 individuals to vote and came away empowered by the visible change they were making. Hill says the course “fits with the larger Catholic framework to value every person and community for the common good.” In the future Hill hopes to act as a resource and contact for other colleges and universities that seek to incorporate voting and voter engagement into their curricula.

It is empowering to reflect on the variety of ways that Catholic colleges and universities are taking activism and advocacy in their own hands. Students and faculty are seeing a need and are taking action to alleviate this need. These campuses are also continuing the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. in unique ways that are centered on his mission of peace and equality. Entering into the season of Lent offers us the perfect opportunity to reflect on how we are serving the least of our neighbors and serving God to our fullest extent possible.

University of St. Thomas establishes Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program

The University of St. Thomas has recently developed a VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program “to help nonresident aliens file their tax returns.” Student volunteers assist international students enrolled at St. Thomas University with filing their required taxes.

This recently established program provides benefits for both those receiving the assistance and the volunteers. In addition to helping a student in need, volunteers gain technical knowledge on the income tax system in the United States and “develop soft skills by working with real clients from all over the world.” With the establishment of this program, St. Thomas University renews its commitment and support to its international students.

To read more or become involved in VITA visit University of St. Thomas news.

Inclusion on Campus: Make the Admissions Process Accessible for Underserved Communities

Recruitment material can make a clear and visible statement that your campus welcomes a diverse student body. The College of Saint Mary created a branding campaign with a Spanish-language component, adding a section for Spanish-speaking parents to its website. The Holy Names University website features a prominent link to Spanish translations of all admissions and financial aid information and forms. And the University of St. Thomas (Texas) offers detailed information about the university in Spanish and Vietnamese through its website. The site also links to Spanish-language videos that include a campus tour and a walk-through of the admissions process.

Over the next few weeks, we will release short examples of  diversity at Catholic institutions of higher education as part of a series called “Inclusion on Campus”.  Stay tuned to hear how Catholic institutions are promoting diversity as an expression of God’s grandeur!

University of St. Thomas to Open Two Year College

The University of St. Thomas plans to open the Dougherty Family College, a two-year college committed to providing opportunities to pursue higher education to students who have limited financial resources.  The college, the first of its kind in Minnesota, will offer an Associate of Arts degree in liberal arts that can be easily transferred to public or private four year institutions.  The Dougherty Family College plans to admit 150 students in the fall.

The Dougherty Family College is dedicated to ensuring the success of students who come from low-income backgrounds and students who are the first in their family to attend college. The college is designed with a system of mentoring, directed curriculum, generous financial aid, small class sizes and a paid internship program to provide  students with valuable work experience.  The school is modeled on Arrupe College at Loyola University Chicago.

“We are determined to reduce the educational attainment gap in Minnesota and prepare students to become transformational leaders in our communities, state and nation,” said Julie Sullivan, president of the University of St. Thomas. “It is our mission to develop and be morally responsible leaders, who work to advance the common good, and the inspiration for the Dougherty Family College came from within our school and from our generous, community-minded donors.”

Read more about the initiative here.

Stewards of Creation on Campus: Catholic Colleges Address Climate Change

In the year since Pope Francis released his encyclical on care for the environment, Laudato Si’, many Catholics have taken seriously the message to be better stewards of the earth.  Pope Francis encourages a connection between environmental concerns and issues of justice, noting that the issue of climate change involves hearing “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Laudato Si’, no. 49). Catholic colleges are addressing this dual call in many ways, incorporating the theme of environmental justice into classes, study abroad opportunities, and campus events.

Earlier this year, the University of St. Thomas (UST), began a three-part program incorporating environmental justice into a freshman symposium class, local service-learning efforts, and study abroad program in Costa Rica.  The projects were funded by the Global Solidarity Grant program, a collaboration between Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and Catholic Relief Services, which awards grants to colleges and universities as a way of increasing awareness of global injustice and expanding student involvement in a faith that does justice. In the UST freshman symposium, Sister Damien Marie Savino, chair of the Environmental Studies program at UST, recently gave a guest lecture and led a discussion on Catholic Social Teaching, climate change, and sustainability efforts on campus and in the local community.

In addition to classroom learning and discussion, students served at Plant-It-Forward, a local community farm-share that partners with refugees to provide fresh local produce to the Houston area. Additionally, the UST sustainability committee hosted a sustainability dinner for the students in the seminar with a farm-to-table meal, along with a discussion on how to improve sustainability efforts on campus.

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UST students in Costa Rica

The final part of the expansive program was a service trip to Costa Rica where students worked with a small coffee-producing community. While serving in Costa Rica, students connected their knowledge of climate change from the seminar and experience in the local community to a global perspective. The students were moved by the relationships built across cultures that helped them shape their understanding of care for creation. They also reported that their lives were changed by meeting the people in Costa Rica and experiencing a culture that is so intertwined with the environment. One first-year student, Elena Dang, said she learned that “a huge difference in lifestyles between the USA and Costa Rica is the respect for Mother Nature. Children walk the streets, people sit outside, many restaurants have outside seating. There’s a sense of respect and veneration for nature because of how it provides so much for everyone.”

UST plans to continue this program so that service learning will flourish as a foundation of a UST education.

In another project funded by the Global Solidarity Grant program, students at Cabrini University organized a climate change simulation that focused on the effects of climate change on the poor and vulnerable, called “Tame the Change.” The simulation was led by students in a class called “Our Interdependent World,” a part of the Engagements with the Common Good core curriculum and taught by Jerome Zurek, in collaboration with the Wolfington Center, the center for community engagement and research at Cabrini, Catholic Relief Services ambassadors, the university communications department, and Cabrini Mission Corps. “Tame the Change” started as a topic study on how climate change is not only affecting the environment but also harming vulnerable people who lack the resources to safeguard themselves against the negative outcomes of environmental changes. The simulation modeled how climate change has a greater effect on the poor who rely on the land for their livelihood. In the simulation, students were put into pairs, where one was assigned to a developed country and one to a developing country, to represent the effect of daily decisions of those in developed countries on those living in developing countries.  At various stations, participants were presented with everyday choices they typically face on campus, involving food waste, plastic water bottle use, and energy use by electronics. Every choice that the person in the developed country made affected the other to indicate the interconnectedness of people across the globe. At the conclusion of the event, each of the over 200 participants were given reflection booklets based on passages from Laudato Si’ to help them reflect upon what they had learned during the event.

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Students at Cabrini University participate in “Tame the Change”

“Tame the Change” promoted solidarity with those who are strongly affected by climate change. As the class ended, students expanded the project to share it with more of the campus. To conclude the project, students built a website that enables other student groups to facilitate events similar to “Tame the Change.”

Tom Southard, the director of the Wolfington Center, noted that the event has resulted in a renewed commitment among Cabrini students and faculty members to combat climate change. Student groups are looking to facilitate more programs with an environmental focus and faculty members are shifting their research to include the sociology and science behind climate change.

Another example of encouraging students to thinking critically about care for the environment is Loyola University of Chicago’s third annual Climate Change Conference. The conference, hosted by the Institute of Environmental Sustainability, was titled “Global Climate Change: Challenges and Economic Solutions,” and focused on the effects of climate change on the global economy. During the conference, students in the Dance Theatre and University Chorale performed Earth Song, a song composed by Frank Ticheli, to highlight the connection between human actions and the environment. The performance reflected on and celebrated climate change initiatives, bringing the conversation into the realm of the arts. The students aimed to convey meaning through art, as a language that can be understood on multiple levels. Emily Miller, a first-year student in the University Chorale, commented that she hoped the performance would “appeal to the emotions of those who attend” the conference. A video of the performance is available on the conference website. This interdisciplinary approach to the issue of climate change enables Loyola University to engage students, faculty, and staff in a dialogue to effect change.

Through the classroom, student programs, and university events, Catholic universities are addressing the environmental crisis in a variety of creative projects. These colleges and universities embody Pope Francis’s call to care for our common home as stewards of creation, hearing both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.

Camilla MacKenzie is an undergraduate student at The Catholic University of America and the Peace and Justice Intern at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

Peace and Justice in ACCU’s Fall Newsletter

ACCU recently released the fall edition of Update, our quarterly newsletter. Read Update in full here. Peace and Justice highlights include:

Global Solidarity Grants Increase Awareness of Catholic Social Teaching at Benedictine University, Cabrini College, Dominican University, St. Norbert’s College, and the University of St. Thomas (TX).

Catholic Colleges Bring Higher Education to the Incarcerated: Saint Francis College, Donnelly College, Holy Cross College, University of Notre Dame, and La Salle University implement programs to bring higher education to those incarcerated.

Spring Hill Alumni Participate in Inaugural Service Trip to Belize where they worked building homes.

Loyola Chicago Students Donate Care Packages to Soldiers serving in Iraq through a partnership with Aramark by using the remaining balance on meal plan to purchase care package materials

Loras Student Wins Interfaith Leadership Award- Recent graduate Samantha Eckrich was awarded the Mike Hammer Interfaith Leadership Award, which recognized her effort in promoting interfaith cooperation on campus.

To subscribe to Update, please email Paula Moore.