Service Immersion

This summer 50 Canisius students and five faculty and staff members participated in international service immersion projects through the college’s Office of Campus Ministry. In five different locations, students investigated a foreign culture and educated themselves about a different reality in order to serve individuals on the margins of society. 

LuAnn Firestone, associate campus minister, says that part of the mission of a Jesuit university is to help students be more sensitive to the needs of the poor. She cites a quote from Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus.

“Students, in the course of their formation, must let the gritty reality of this world into their lives, so they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering and engage it constructively. They should learn to perceive, think, judge, choose and act for the rights of others, especially the disadvantaged and oppressed.”

Nowhere is that better illustrated than in El Salvador. From May 20-May 31, students learned directly from the people of El Salvador about their struggle through the brutal civil war (1980-1992) that pitted the wealthy few against the poor, the Catholic Church’s role in the struggle, the search for justice and peace following the war, and the current situation in El Salvador today.

Students visited museums and massacre sites, talked one-on-one with political leaders, supported grassroots business initiatives, took a horseback ride into the mountains with an ex-guerilla, and witnessed the everyday reality of the poor during an overnight home stay in a very rural community.

“The most memorable experiences for me were those where love and hope emerged out of the poverty and violence that seems omnipresent,” says Christopher Rider ’14, who served as a student leader on the El Salvador trip. “When we visited a factory outside of San Salvador and I witnessed how a factory manager created a safe and happy workplace while simultaneously incorporating the most marginalized members of the community (including gang members and the handicapped), I was profoundly moved.”

Alex Tubridy ’15 adds that he discovered the true meaning of service when the group participated in minga, or voluntary communal labor. “We spent the day helping a man prepare his home for a new addition that would support his growing family,” says Tubridy. “He had little money to spare. But he insisted on using what he had to feed all ten of us lunch. It was this sense of community between this man and our group that opened my eyes.”

In Kingston, Jamaica (May 20 – June 1), students spent a week in doing home repairs in underserved neighborhoods and visited social service agencies such as soup kitchens, basis schools and homes for the elderly or orphaned. The group then traveled to rural Jamaica to work on a “security farm” where food is grown for the poor. Students performed tasks such as farming, painting and simple construction.

Canisius students, led by Firestone, lived and worked in Sor Isolina Ferre Caimito, Puerto Rico at the Centro Sor Isoline Ferré Caimito from June 9 – June 22.  It is one of many centers across the island named for Sister Ferré who was a Puerto-Rican nun. Students worked at a summer camp for infants through 12th graders.  They provided childcare for young children and organized activities for older children that promoted peace or alternates to violence including music, crafts, sports, nature explorations, tutoring, English lessons and field trips.

From July 14 – August 5, Canisius students lived and worked at an orphanage in Zmiaça, Poland, that primarily serves children in foster or ambulatory care. They were completely responsible for the children’s day-to-day care and activities, including hiking, sports, crafts, English lessons, and daily skits and dance performances.

“We provide relief for the regular caretakers,” says Jennifer Koenig ’12, who served as lead mentor for the group. “I previously went on the Poland trip and loved it so much I just had to return to see the children this summer.”

Students also organized a large scale sports competition for the children, then had the opportunity to explore Krakow and visit important historic sites in Southern Poland such as Czestochowa and Auschwitz.

“We base the trips on the four cornerstone values of simplicity, spirituality, social justice and solidarity,” says Firestone. “We explore the world, our hearts and faith and justice issues. We want students to come back uncomfortable with the status quo and to rethink what they are doing with their lives.”

She adds that while the service immersion experience is transformative for all students, how they decide to implement that into their everyday lives depends on the individual.

“I am trying to incorporate social responsibility into my professional ambitions as I pursue a career in international business,” says Christopher Rider, who currently interns with a local coffee roaster and distributor that is trying to expand its production of sustainably grown coffee. “I think service immersion helps direct us in our academics and enables students to appreciate their lives, and perhaps completely change the way we view the world.”

Canisius College is one of 28 Jesuit universities in the nation and the premier private university in Western New York.