College service projects change students’ lives

Ask Catholic college students who have done college service projects for feedback, and they’ll tell you that it has changed their lives. Ask Catholic college community service administrators for feedback, and they’ll tell you that it’s changed the world.

On Catholic college campuses throughout the country this spring break, students will be packing and preparing to embark on national and international service projects that will take them to some of the poorest areas of the world. They’ll be working as Christ’s hands and feet, serving those in need.

Shaping lives

Last March, Kaitlin Eighme participated in the Alternative Spring Break trip through St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. Along with seven other students, Eighme traveled to Whitewater, Ariz., and worked and lived alongside the White Mountain Apache tribe.

“Some of the most profound experiences which shaped my new understanding of service occurred during that trip,” she said. “The Apaches taught me many life lessons that week. They taught me how to love, to see people for who they are — beautifully sacred and precious lights in my life. They also taught me the peace that comes from vulnerability. I experienced the sweet peace that comes from letting go and letting others in.”

Eighme, a senior majoring in elementary education, also traveled to New York City in her freshman year, Peru in her sophomore year and will go to Uganda this spring to work in a local orphanage and hospital.

“While I originally viewed service as hard work with tangible results, this experience opened my eyes to a different view of what it meant to serve God,” she said. “The beauty of service is that it need not be constrained to such a narrow definition or understanding. In the most beautifully simplistic way, service and work for social change can mean establishing relationships with persons who are (part of) a common humanity yet have diverse cultures, backgrounds and outlooks on life.” After graduation, Eighme would like to volunteer for a year working with children.

Real-life experience

Liza Manjarrez is the assistant director of campus ministry at St. Edward’s University. She works with the students who participate in service projects and has seen the changes that service affects on them.

“Our faith calls us to do justice and to help our brothers and sisters in need,” Manjarrez said. “For many students, that’s just an abstract concept. The service that students at St. Edward’s University perform lets them see that concept in real life and gives them a chance to do something about it.”

The university provides an array of service opportunities that takes its students through the streets of Austin working in collaboration with area nonprofits, as well as to India, Canada, Peru and Uganda. The focus of each project is social justice and forming bonds between people of varying cultures and backgrounds.

“We can talk all we want about immigration and solidarity, but that’s just a concept,” she said. “Serving immigrants makes that concept a reality. When you actually see someone who is an immigrant, it brings the concept to life. We’re no longer talking about immigration, we’re talking about a man named Miguel.”

Strengthening faith

Whether it’s a weeklong trip to a foreign country, or a weekly stint at the local soup kitchen, participating in these ministries helps students to understand their place in God’s world, discern their careers and vocations and strengthen their Catholic faith.

Jessica Smith, a graduate assistant for community service at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., encourages service for all college students.

“The goal of Catholic education is not only to build strong, academically gifted students, but to play a part in shaping well-rounded men and women of integrity who are not afraid to live their faith or be bold witnesses of Christ,” she said. “Service opportunities allow students to put their faith into action, to apply what they learn in the classroom to society at large, and have a greater university experience that includes their neighboring community.”

Catholic University offers a variety of service opportunities for students ranging from feeding the homeless, tutoring, visiting the elderly and retired veterans, to conducting after-school programs, sharing time with adults with intellectual disabilities and staffing the Ronald McDonald Family Room at Children’s Hospital. There are also many one-day service events for those who aren’t able to fit weekly projects into their schedules but still want to serve.

As a person who loves to sleep, Mike Thorsen doesn’t relish the idea of getting up at 6:30 a.m. — except, that is, on the days he goes to serve at a Washington soup kitchen that offers breakfast and lunch daily to the disadvantaged. Thorsen is a sophomore majoring in early childhood education at Catholic University, and he hopes to one day be a youth minister and pre-K teacher in a Catholic school. He’s been involved in many service projects with the university and feels the experiences have given him a tremendous opportunity to give back to God what he has so graciously given to him. This spring, he’ll go with Habitat for Humanity to Phoenix and in May will go to Belize on a mission trip.

“I feel that not only am I following Jesus’ example, but I’m encountering him daily with the people I serve,” he said. “From going to Catholic school my entire life, I have learned a lot about Catholic social teaching; however, being given the opportunity to live it is an incredible experience that I wish more people would be open to sharing in.”

A new perspective

Not only do service projects change the way students look at themselves, they also change the way the students look at the world. Students at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash., participate in a number of local, regional and national service projects, which include assisting nonprofits, serving at food banks and soup kitchens, family support services, tending to the homeless and ministering to migrant farm worker families. Additionally, they embark on an annual trip to Tanzania to work in a school and orphanage there.

St Edwards
Students from St. Edward’s University construct a makeshift garden gate while on a service trip. Courtesy photo

According to Susan Leyster, director of service immersion programs at St. Martin’s, service projects open students’ minds and hearts. “All the work is hands-on, experiential service,” she said. “For most, it will enrich their world by expanding their borders. It will put a human face on issues that they have only read about and will increase their knowledge of themselves and what it means to be in a global world.”

The service that students do at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles helps them to develop a worldview in which all life is valued and teaches them how to harness their leadership skills while taking action to achieve social justice on a global level.

“Service helps our students realize their true passion and how they can use their gifts to create a better world,” said Kimberly Terrill, director of community engagement at Mount St. Mary’s. “It allows them to clarify their values and develop their special skills and talents. Serving and supporting others helps students build confidence and assists them in identifying and reinforcing their career goals and the importance of service to systemic change.”

“I learned about teamwork, about how important it is to be consistent and take initiative,” said Alba Arana, a senior majoring in sociology at Mount St. Mary’s. After graduation, Arana hopes to work with at-risk youth. “Through service, I was able to explore working with different populations and organizations. Service helped me find my career goals and what my career meant outside of the books in the classroom.”

Change in attitude

While the students may not have noticed it themselves, campus ministers and staff have noticed that service experiences make students less self-centered. In fact, a high percentage of students make service a lifetime commitment.

“I think their experience of service cultivates in them a sense of importance and worthiness of service and an understanding that leaders do best by serving those whom they lead — in true imitation of Christ,” said Anne Forsyth, director of college relations at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif. “This is a time of life when it could be easy to become self-centered. Participating in service activities, therefore, helps them to be more generous and more focused on the needs of others.”

Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.

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