|May 9, 2016 • VOL. 54, NO. 9 • Oakland, CA|
youth homelessness face to face
Students at Saint Mary's College have the opportunity to "connect the dots" between what they learn in the classroom about Catholic social teaching and what happens in the real world through immersion education.
"Los Angeles has a large homeless youth population," said Nick van Santen, assistant director of Justice Education and Immersions in the school's Mission and Ministry Center. "We started connecting the dots. It was epiphany for me: We have our 18 -to 22-year-olds engaging 18 to 22-year-old people living those lives in Los Angeles."
Seven students, representing all undergraduate years, and three adults made the trip to Los Angeles, spending the heart of the week among homeless youths, and meeting representatives of agencies that serve them. They spent their nights on the sixth-floor of a homeless shelter, in which they took their meals as well as served them.
They looked through many lenses, said van Santen, who has a master's degree in divinity from Princeton University and is pursuing a doctoral degree at Saint Mary's.
"What are your options on the street?" was the main question they asked, as they spent time at Covenant House, a shelter that cares for homeless young people; Homeboys Industries, which works with former gang members; and at an LGBT youth center.
"Fifty percent of the homeless youth in Los Angeles," he said, "would check that box (LGBT)."
The benefits last beyond the immersion days.
Emily Redfern, a third-year global studies major who went on her first immersion experience during her first year, serves as a student ambassador.
Redfern, who is from Colorado, looked into the immersion trip in her first year in lieu of making a quick trip home in the fall — she knew she'd be going home for Christmas.
Her first experience was the college's trip to Salinas. Redfern, who had volunteered in her parish with Confirmation preparation and Vacation Bible School, found new ways to share her faith with others. She also had great stories to tell her family at Christmas.
When the students on an immersion experience return to campus, they gather to share what they have learned with each other and the greater campus community.
As student ambassador, Redfern keeps in touch with the participants. A participant in one of the programs now offers a monthly "Solidarity Supper," a free home-cooked meal on campus. Some students use their experience as the basis of a research project. Some have returned to work at the school in Montana after graduation.
For Redfern, the experience has broadened and deepened her faith. To her global studies major, she has added a concentration in social justice. She also has a minor in biology.
"The leadership skills I learned are transferable to wherever I go," she said. "I am excited by the fact I'll be part of something with larger social implications."
That's how van Santen sees it, too. The immersion experiences enhance and enliven what the students have studied in the classroom, he said.
"This experience helps them become more human," he said.
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