Mission Driven

Short-term immersion trips provide tangible and lasting connection to SU’s mission

Written by Tina Potterf
Photography by Heath Braun and Tom Norwood
July 7, 2011

When Andre Springman heard the young woman’s story, he walked away with a new perspective.

The encounter happened at Heritage University, a small private university in Eastern Washington, where Springman met a second-year student who at age 22 was a mother of two children, a full-time student and part-time instructor for the GED program. He was taken by her openness to share her circumstances and inspired by what she has accomplished against all odds.

“She overcame great barriers to pursue her education and give back to her community,” he says.

This was just one of several meetings and exchanges in homes, with community members and migrant workers that contributed to a week that Springman calls “life changing.”

The first-year student was among a collective of Seattle University students who made the trek east from Seattle to Wapato, Wash., as participants in the Dignity, Justice and Work program sponsored by the Center for Service and Community Engagement.

A hallmark of a Jesuit education is engagement with the world through experiences that enable students and alumni to learn by doing. One important way this is accomplished is through short-term, mission-focused trips that take students out of the classroom and immerses them in another city, country or culture.

For many students, college is a time for exploration, self-discovery and learning through lived experiences. These are often the outcome of study or service abroad trips. Our Education Abroad program and international placements consistently are among the top in the country; students have the opportunity to fully engage in another culture academically through long-term programs throughout the world.

But there are also opportunities for exploration by way of intensive, but short-term, trips, such as the Wapato immersion, that serve to enhance the academic strengths of the university. These immersion trips often occur in a week over winter or spring breaks that take participants—typically from 10 to a dozen or more, depending on the trip—to Nicaragua, Belize, Tijuana, Mexico, or a locale just a few hours from home (for most of the trips participants sign up or volunteer for a spot and pay their own way.)

The rural immersion was of interest to Springman, ’14, because he wanted to give a face and a story to the recent spate of media reports about immigration and better understand the issue.

“It’s about having students…talk about issues of immigration within the context of their own state,” says Kelly Benkert, program coordinator for the Center for Service and Community Engagement.

The experience has given Springman a greater awareness, he says, of what is going on in the world, even if the “world” is a couple hours drive from Seattle. It has raised in him questions about the connectedness of issues such as employment rights, social justice and politics.

In addition to their visit at Heritage University, students met with men and women who work in the farms and apple packing plants in the small town near Yakima. They heard the stories and saw firsthand the long workdays of the migrant workers and the strong and unabated sense of community and importance of family that fuels their drive. The trip offered ample time for reflection.

“The migrant workers’ stories were very personal and the people were more than happy to share,” Springman says. “I learned many great things about the world that I would have never learned had I not had this experience.”
These short, but intensive, immersions can enhance professional formation and build on the academic offerings at SU, says Victoria Jones, associate provost for global engagement.

“As a complement to the academic side of the university, these kind of trips provide a wonderful hands-on way of exploring the university mission,” says Jones.

Campus Ministry oversees many of the mission-driven trips including outreach to Belize, where participants work with childcare centers, schools, health clinics and a day center for elderly. Alumni have the chance to spend a week in Belize doing service work in an immersion that was started in 2005 by Professor Gary Chamberlain and 2004 grad Lauren Lake. In describing the purpose of the immersion, Lake says, “Our hope was to have a consistent presence in Belize between SU interns and nursing students and the immersion trip there by Campus Ministry so that every few months the organizations in Belize would have new supplies and volunteers.”

During the group’s last trip, which typically occurs in late winter (February/March), alumni assisted at organizations including the YMCA/YWCA and at local schools. Volunteers also worked at Mercy Clinic and Mercy Kitchen, where they served the elderly poor and provided health care, meals and food delivery to those who are homebound. Participants also worked alongside Jesuit volunteers and SU students who are there in longer service stays.

“Our group had a very meaningful experience in Belize. We learned a lot from the local community leaders, particularly Dr. Clara Cuellar at the YMCA, who shared some late evenings with our group discussing issues with the youth in Belize,” says Laker. “The trip emphasized our desire to continue working in these ways in the world, locally and internationally. Many of the group members have kept in touch with our contacts in Belize and are hoping to serve in Belize again in the near future.”

One of SU’s longstanding immersions is to Nicaragua, which was initiated in 2001 for faculty and staff (SU has been involved with initiatives and engagement with our peer Jesuit university in Managua years prior.) Faculty and staff spend the week exploring issues of global justice in a developing country, meeting with leaders and educational colleagues in Managua and further strengthen the mission of Jesuit higher ed.

Buzz Hofford is resident district manager for SU’s food services provider Bon Appetit and went on the recent trip to Nicaragua this past spring.

“An immersion trip…creates a kind of sacred space in which we encounter each other, our international hosts and issues of global justice.”
-Jim Hembree, Senior Director of Development  

During the week stay he and his SU colleagues spent visited schools, coffee farms and cooperatives and met with various community leaders. It was an experience he won’t soon forget.

“This is the type of trip I will be processing for a long time to come,” Hofford says. “Perhaps the most rewarding and surprising aspect was the connection I made with my university colleagues. In the hustle and bustle of the workweek, we never find time to sit, chat and really get to know one another. Having the opportunity to converse with highly intelligent folks on a variety of interesting topics was something I really valued.”

Exposure to another culture that trips such as these provide is invaluable, Hofford says, to appreciate not only what we have but what we may be missing.

“In order to create a just and humane world we need to appreciate its diversity and beauty and recognize how much we can learn from people in other cultures.”

Joining Hofford on the trip was Jim Hembree, senior director of development.

Hembree wanted to participate in the immersion “because it is a great example of how Seattle University can work together with Jesuit institutions and nonprofit organizations around the world to benefit international learning and research.”

The experiences he had during his time in Nicaragua, including at the Jesuit University of Central America, will help in his work engaging alumni and benefactors about SU’s global partnerships. “It helps to be able to draw on personal experience when having those conversations,” he says.

In the coffee growing region of Matagalpa, Hembree says the group experienced one of its most uplifting and powerful conversations of the entire trip. “We met with the leaders of a women’s cooperative who had organized themselves in the struggle for access to coffee markets and for health and education in their rural, mountain communities,” he says. “… It felt like being at the well spring of liberation theology, like entering into a deep and swift moving current of thought that continues to nourish humanitarian work today.”

The Nicaraguan immersion inspired Hembree by showing how an international network of schools, colleges and universities can share a common commitment for not only academic excellence in service but also in helping the poor and the marginalized.

“Everyone should experience an immersion. It truly opens up the world to you.”
—Andre Springman, ’14, first-year student

What surprised him most? “Realizing how profoundly the little choices I make every day can impact people a half-world away,” Hembree says. “For example, my taste preferences in coffee, if shared by enough people, actually influence coffee markets and affect the way small coffee producers in Nicaragua do their work. It’s an illustration that in a global economy we are all connected.”

Jocelyn Tidwell works as the administrative coordinator in the office of University Planning and will graduate in December 2011 from the College of Education with a Master’s in Adult Education and Training. An interest in connecting her future work in education with diverse populations whose native language is not English was among the factors that propelled her to participate in this year’s immersion trip to Wapato. Tidwell has participated in service-oriented trips in the past through programs such as Habitat for Humanity.

 “Even though Seattle and Eastern Washington are geographically close, culturally they are pretty distinct,” Tidwell says. “I think an immersion trip structured like this is experiential learning at its best.”

She recalls a meeting with a student named Teresa at Heritage University, someone she got to know prior to the trip through e-mail correspondence. When they met and the two began to talk, Tidwell found that they shared many commonalities. When Tidwell asked Teresa what she would say to the issue of undocumented immigrants, “I felt her voice tighten…and she replied, ‘People are people and a piece of paper doesn’t change their needs or the way they deserve to be treated,’” says Tidwell. “That’s the message I promised I would share.”

Whether it’s a short-term trip half a world away or one a close drive from home, those who have had the chance to expand their worldview and perspectives through immersions encourage others to do the same.

“An immersion trip…creates a kind of sacred space in which we encounter each other, our international hosts and issues of global justice,” says Hembree, “with a freshness that yields new insight and inspiration.”

Students help in the construction of houses in a service trip to Tijuana, Mexico.
Assistant Professor Mary Graham of the College of Education spends time with children she met during the Nicaragua immersion trip during spring break.
Seattle University students help set a foundation for a home during a recent trip to Tijuana.