At Fairfield and at other Jesuit schools and universities we often say that we form our students to be “men and women for others.”
If one looks back at the long history of Jesuit education — which goes back to 1548 — one can see that there has always been an understanding that the purpose of an education was to prepare young people to take responsibility for making the world a better place. In recent years there has been a renewed emphasis on our obligation to take direct action in trying to achieve this end — not just talk about it, but do it — an obligation first articulated in this way on July 31, 1973 in an address of the then Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, at an international Congress of Jesuit alumni.
A critical component of our education now is service learning, by which we mean that we expect our students to actively participate in helping people by doing (and not just thinking about it).
At Fairfield, we have many service learning programs. Last week, under the direction of our Campus Ministry program, about 40 of our students and 8 faculty and staff spent their spring break in a different way — travelling to four different locations to work in communities where they could be of value. One group, with the guidance of two of our faculty, went to New Orleans to gather oral histories from Hurricane Katrina survivors. Another group worked on an organic farm in Massachusetts, while another group went to Immokalee in Florida to volunteer for social service agencies that help migrant farm laborers and to study food justice issues.
A fourth group joined volunteers from other colleges to work with the Christian Appalachian Project, repairing and building homes in eastern Kentucky, one of the poorest parts of the country. Our students went for one week, but over the course of three weeks — with skilled volunteers leading the students from other schools — the project group will renovate and improve between 8 and 10 homes in the region for families that could not afford to do it on their own.
As I write today, these groups have just returned, and so I haven’t heard all the stories yet, though I’m sure I will. What I do know is that these students come back to Fairfield with a better understanding of how privileged they are, a greater capacity for compassion, and a deeper grasp of the nature of their own humanity. Really, it is they who are the greatest beneficiaries of the experience. In short, the vital grasp in their understanding that Fr. Arrupe spoke of in 1973 — that the love of God includes a love of neighbor, and therefore a desire for justice — will have been strengthened. They’ll also come back with a more mature appreciation of what is truly important in life.
As one student said this time last year on returning back to Fairfield from Kentucky, “I’m not sweating the small stuff — my little desires and annoyances. I feel like I have a bigger picture, a better perspective.”