College Network Brings World Into Focus
Professor Jerry Zurek, chairman of the communications department at Cabrini College, answers questions about what his students are learning from Catholic Relief Services' Global Solidarity Network, an online learning community that brings Catholic college students, CRS staff and beneficiaries together to discuss social justice and humanitarian issues around the world.
- Kim Pozniak:
- How do your students benefit from Cabrini College's partnership with Catholic Relief Services?
- Jerry Zurek:
By participating in the Global Solidarity Network, our students become increasingly aware of global social justice issues like migration, food security and peacebuilding. They become aware that they are not isolated individuals but part of a larger community on Catholic campuses who share similar concerns.
Let me give you just one example of the exciting world the program opens up to our students: My class of first-year college students was studying the migration of people in our hemisphere and the poverty experienced by workers in Latin American countries. Through the Global Solidarity Network, they were able to focus on one Guatemalan village that, with the assistance of CRS partners, has been able to form a Fair Trade coffee cooperative. In a live video conference, they were able to speak with the Guatemalan head of the coffee cooperative, a CRS representative in Guatemala, and the head of a North American roasting and distribution company. Imagine the impact such an experience had on my freshmen.
Later in the semester, after the presidential election, students wrote individual letters to President Obama about immigration reform. In their letters, they frequently cited the experience of speaking with a Guatemalan farmer who benefited from fair trade practices.
This is just one example of how students increase their awareness and become personally engaged with CRS and people in other countries.
- Why is it important for college students to learn about social justice issues, like the ones CRS works on overseas?
University students in recent years have had an increasing desire to feel connected with people around the world, and to find ways that they can help make the world a better place. After decades in which material possessions and high salaries were held up as the goal in life, more students now want their lives to have greater meaning.
One student told me, "The cell phone, the computer, the car, the clothes, they do not make me who I am. I am not defined by what I have. I am defined by what I have done. And I am determined to do more with my life. I am determined to do something to help people, no matter how big of a challenge it may be. I will not feel fulfilled if I don't do some sort of advocacy."
Our goal is that students will develop a lifelong commitment to be in solidarity with their brothers and sisters overseas. As their understanding of the complex issues of human development deepens in their minds, and as these issues take on a human face, students come to see migration and peacebuilding not as news stories in far-off countries, but as human struggles they have come in contact with through CRS.
- How do your students turn these experiences into action?
Our students have found so many ways to live out their commitment to social justice. They are finding ways to make social justice a part of their professional careers. Some of our journalism students, for example, have focused on the displacement of Iraqi refugees and the terrible impact it has had on their lives. These young journalists have spoken by phone and e-mail with Iraqi university-age refugees in Lebanon, and have then traveled to the Camden, New Jersey, diocese to meet with Iraqi refugees our country has taken in. They have written and published numerous news stories about the lives of these refugees, and have advocated on their behalf. Several produced a documentary video that has had wide distribution. Other students have produced newspaper articles to promote the cause of Iraqi refugees attending college in the U.S.
Our students are using the skills they learn in college to make the pursuit of social justice a lifetime commitment, and not just something done once in a while on the weekend.
- What other initiatives are Cabrini students involved in?
In addition to learning to use their professional skills in support of social justice, the second way we try to educate students for a lifelong commitment is to teach them the skills of advocacy and legislative lobbying. Two Cabrini College classes have learned how to lobby in Congress and went to Washington to meet with their senators' aides to advocate for long-term development aid.
One student, after lobbying in Washington, said, "Through lobbying, I became aware of my talent for understanding law and effectively communicating it in a persuasive manner. It felt so amazing to know that because of a 15-minute lobbying session, I was able to give a voice to people who are poverty-stricken, malnourished and starving and as a result, hopefully produce legislation that will directly help them improve the status of their life."
- How does involvement with CRS prepare Cabrini students for their careers?
Because of the relationships that students have built with CRS personnel, their eyes are open to what is happening around the world. They see that the skills they learn in college, whether as journalists, health care workers, teachers or accountants, can all be used to benefit people in developing countries. While they know that they may not all be involved in directly working for an organization like CRS, they now see the world differently and try to find ways to integrate their passion for social justice into their careers.
For example, one of our graduates was hired to be the director of public relations for the engineering school at a major university. Because of her experience with CRS as a student, she understood the importance of access to clean water in developing countries. In her job at the engineering school, she became co-adviser of the student chapter of Engineers Without Borders and helps to raise the awareness of future engineers to water rights issues.
Another graduate was hired as a journalist in Nevada. Because of her knowledge of refugee and migration issues through CRS, when the Catholic diocese was resettling Iraqi refugees in Nevada, she was sensitive to this issue and found ways to bring the issue to the attention of her readers.
"The cell phone, the computer, the car, the clothes, they do not make me who I am. I am not defined by what I have. I am defined by what I have done. And I am determined to do more with my life. I am determined to do something to help people, no matter how big of a challenge it may be. I will not feel fulfilled if I don't do some sort of advocacy."
Kim Pozniak is a communications officer for CRS based in Baltimore, MD.