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Pittsburgh Catholic Column: Feb. 29, 2008

College students inspire us through service to the needy

by Dr. Charles J. Dougherty

With the return of spring comes images of college students on spring break.  In the worst years, there are pictures of illegal activity and conflicts with police.  In better times, there are simply pictures of relaxation—lying on beaches in Florida, Texas and California.

Whatever the venue, the unspoken message of spring break is the same: “Winter is hard and college is demanding. I deserve a vacation.” After all, youth is the time in life to have some fun, to be a little self-indulgent.

That is why the other spring break story—the one that is rarely in the papers or on TV—is so remarkable.  For some inspiring college students spring break is not about “me.”  Instead, it is about volunteering in service to others.  This phenomenon is especially marked at Catholic universities.

Take DePaul University in Chicago, for example. No doubt, some of their students will be on the beach for spring break. Winter is tough in Chicago. But DePaul students will also be found working with faith-based communities on peace and justice issues in Baltimore, Md. They will be in Biloxi, Miss., working in the extended clean-up from Hurricane Katrina.  In rural Kentucky, they will live and work with coal-mining families for a week. Groups of DePaul students will be in New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., serving the homeless, supporting children and the elderly, and working on building and cleaning projects.

Boston has hard winters too.  Many Boston College students will “get even” with a week on Florida’s beaches. But some of their friends and roommates will be working with the sick and poor on a Native American reservation in South Dakota. Hundreds will be working throughout Appalachia for their spring break. Many of them will stay right in Boston, working in a food bank and a homeless shelter. Some will go abroad, working in an orphanage in Jamaica and with the rural poor in Nicaragua.

Winter is no picnic in Pittsburgh, either. Area universities will be sending their share of spring break students to Florida for fun in the sun.  But students from LaRoche College will spend a week working with Hurricane Katrina victims in Bay St. Louis, Miss. Their classmates have done the same before in New Orleans and throughout Appalachia.

Carlow University students will experience an “alternative spring break,” assisting in the restoration of seven homes for elderly families in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. And the students participate in group and individual fundraising efforts to pay for their own expenses.

Duquesne students will also be in New Orleans, gutting Hurricane-devastated homes so that four families can rebuild. They will be in Appalachia, helping to run a day care and a food bank in a poor, rural town. They will be working in the inner city in Camden, N.J. in a Head Start program and in a drop-in center for persons with AIDS and HIV.

They will be working with urban poverty right here in Pittsburgh, serving at local schools, food banks and homeless shelters. And in an irony of geography, some Duquesne University students vacationing on the beautiful Florida beaches of Naples will be just minutes away from classmates working with and serving migrant farm worker families in Immokalee.

These nontraditional spring breaks are acts of service to others in need.  As such, they are profoundly good in and of themselves. But these trips are also deeply educational.  For many college students, this is their first encounter with poverty, disease and injustice. It is eye-opening and, in many cases, life-changing.

Perhaps most importantly, at Catholic universities, service-based spring break experiences are run by or coordinated with campus ministry programs. This means that a spiritual context is provided through prayer, journaling and group reflection.

It is easy to understand the desire for college students to get away from winter and their studies for a little self-indulgence in the sun.  But when you see those pictures this spring, remember the other college students who are dedicating their spring breaks to serve the poor and the suffering. They are an inspiration.