What Service Means to Hilltoppers
5 Students Reveal Its Impact on Their Growth and Future
Many students at St. Edward’s participate in service during their time on the hilltop, whether through a one-time project, an academic assignment or an ongoing commitment. It’s an intrinsic part of campus culture going back to the university’s founding by the Congregation of Holy Cross. The experience often leads to profound changes — in how students view themselves, the world and the impact they can have on others.
Patrice Ponce ’18 wants to impact change by working at the state and local level. The Political Science major has gone on four Service Break Experiences (SBE) and is active in Campus Ministry through service and a Bible study group on campus. Her particular area of interest comes from firsthand experience: As an LGBT+ Asian-American woman, she’s driven to help others in marginalized communities.
I feel like on every SBE trip I take, I learn something new, not only about the community we serve but also about myself. Sometimes you feel like you’ve got your life figured out, but then you go on another trip and get a different perspective about yourself.
I led a group on a trip to Utah, where we worked a lot with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). I think my group came with the idea that they had such different views from us. We put up a wall before we even got to meet them. It wasn’t until we started serving with some of the people that we realized none of that stuff even matters. It’s not about getting caught up in the differences. SBE is about getting involved in the work — helping out in the LDS’s canary to learn about the work they do for people experiencing homelessness, working with children in an after-school program, and learning about the challenges that immigrants face in the Salt Lake City area. Those are the things that are really important.
I think a lot of people come into the Political Science major with their views already figured out. I know so many people who refuse to be friends with people who don’t agree with them on certain things, and this trip taught me to really put those differences aside.
You never know a person’s life and what they’re going through or how they’ve come to their own moral understanding. The Political Science professors try to instill that in you, that it’s not about your party identification or what you believe; it’s about keeping that separate from your personal life and your relationships with other people. SBE is a chance to live that out.
AARON KENNARD ’18 is focused on making the college experience better for his fellow students. As a member of the Transitional Experiences Council, the Communication major helps students adjust to college. But his greatest passion is his work with the campus chapter of It’s On Us, which raises awareness about sexual assault among college students.
My first semester freshman year, I took a rhetoric class where I wrote a paper about sexual assault. I didn’t really know a lot about sexual assault, especially in terms of Title IX and the other laws that pertain to sexual assault and sexual violence. But this was an opportunity to explore it, and through exploring, I realized that sexual assault awareness and education is what I’m passionate about and what I want to do.
I think I was most surprised by how pervasive it is. Sexual assault touches almost every single person’s life, and that’s a really sobering thought. I mean, one in five women experiences some sort of sexual violence while in college, and then it’s one in 16 men. It’s affected the lives of people I know and love.
So I joined It’s On Us. We have an action week in the fall with events every single day. We bring in people who are working to prevent sexual assault off campus, and they talk about the state of sexual assault laws in Texas. We have people write messages of support for survivors and tie those messages to the Wishing Tree. And in the spring we put on Take Back the Night. It’s making a difference — people have started really talking about sexual assault here, and I’ve seen that a lot of people have a better understanding of what consent is.
And really it is on us. It’s on every single person, not just higher education or law enforcement, to work to end the epidemic. It’s influenced and governed by big institutions, but culture is created by the people. And so it is our responsibility and every single person can do something — whether that’s big or small — to change it.
Liza Manjarrez, associate director of Campus Ministry, often tells students who are going on Service Break Experiences (SBE) to participate, not anticipate. “People often have a thousand questions about what times we’re doing certain things, but as they meet with groups and leaders, they begin to let go,” she says. “One of the pillars of SBE is to live simply, and it’s not just about leaving your cellphone behind, it’s about living in the present moment and being where you are, even if that means being quiet and listening to someone tell their story.”
Manjarrez joined St. Edward’s University almost 10 years ago, and has helped the SBE program grow from five sites to 17. This year a total of more than 150 students, student leaders and advisors will go on service trips, which includes spring break, winter, summer and international immersion trips. Manjarrez says one of the outcomes she sees is students discovering how their actions can make a difference in the world. “It brings us to a whole different level when we’re able to know, meet and learn from people who are experiencing these [social justice] issues on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “I think it becomes much more real, and then we’re able to use our privilege and our voice to advocate in ways we may not have known or been engaged with, and the element of compassion comes in.”
Sydney Zucker ’18 had only a rudimentary understanding of taxes before taking Professor of Accounting Louise Single’s Income Inequality and Tax Policy Honors class. The class required nearly 40 hours of service with the tax preparation arm of Foundation Communities, a nonprofit in Austin that helps families in need. The experience made her wonder how she could use her Math major to make a difference.
In high school, I did the usual one-off service projects. Professor Single’s class was the first time I had a long-term service goal. I saw this and said to myself, ‘I don’t know anything about taxes; that seems cool.’
The way it worked was this: People came in to get their taxes done, and I helped them figure out what forms they needed. They would then go on to the second stage where they got their taxes prepared. There was a lot of on-the-job learning, and it was super unnerving at first. It was cool because I got to practice a lot of skills I don’t usually get to as a Math major, like customer service. I think in the end I spent more than 40 hours there because they were short-staffed sometimes. Also, they see a lot of deaf clients, and I can communicate in ASL so I wanted to fill in as often as I could. I’m planning to return for the 2018 tax season, too.
When I thought about ways I could volunteer to help my community, I never would have thought of taxes. That made me think about my major, too. If good tax advice can help people, what can I do? I really like pure theoretical math, but I feel like it could be more useful. For instance, I read about a mathematician who’s using hyperbolic geometry to be an expert witness in gerrymandering cases. I want to do something like that.
Josue Damian-Martinez ’18 has risen to leadership roles in multiple organizations across campus. He’s been part of S.E.R.V.E. Austin, the Hilltop Welcome Team, Student Government and Campus Ministry. He also volunteers with organizations that focus on youth, such as Breakthrough Central Texas and E4 Youth. It’s all part of his goal to inspire his community, listen to different perspectives, and help others feel understood and valued — his personal idea of service.
I was heavily involved in high school, but coming into college that first year was very difficult. There was a lot going on personally, and I was homesick. Then I met Brother Larry Atkinson, [CSC], and it was like a light in the darkness for me. That’s when I started getting involved at St. Edward’s.
My main thing has always been to inspire other people, especially the first-generation Latino community. I had a conversation with a student in CAMP, the College Assistance Migrant Program. She said, ‘I noticed that a lot of the people who are involved don’t look like me, but you and I are very similar, and you’re involved. And it encourages me.’ Even in high school, I noticed that pattern, too. A lot of the Latino kids did look up to me and think, ‘I can do that, too.’
Lately, I’ve been thinking of service as part of my everyday life. I hold these different leadership positions on campus, and that’s how I’m serving the students: coming to an understanding and becoming more knowledgeable about the struggles that other people face. And really taking them in and standing in solidarity with those people.
I do what I do because I care for people. I don’t do this because I’m building a résumé. I don’t do this because I’m working my way up the ranks. The world doesn’t have enough loving and humble people. I want the world to see that there are people who genuinely care. As a leader, Brother Larry is an inspiration to me. He’s always on top of his stuff. He’s extroverted, but he knows when to step back. It’s really cool. He also helps me tie what I do back to faith as the foundation. Everything I do, the way that I interact, I make sure that I interact well and kindly with people, because I’m also ultimately a disciple of God. I’m called to serve, and as a servant of God, that’s what I need to do.
Kylie Seaman ’17 transferred to St. Edward’s in search of a welcoming community where she could balance being a mom with being a student. She has jumped on many opportunities — including two Service Break Experiences (SBE). Students live simply and serve others for a week or two in locations in the United States and around the world. She’s been inspired to find a way to use her Kinesiology major to make a difference in the world.
My first SBE brought me to work with Homeboy Industries, which is a program that helps at-risk gang youth. I’m from a really small town where there is nothing like that, and it was interesting seeing this whole different perspective of the world. It was related to what I’d learned the previous semester in my American Dilemmas class, but it’s different to learn about something and then actually see it. Going to L.A. made me think about these kids and their lack of access to everything, and I started thinking about how I could help with that in the future. But my second SBE trip, to Peru, was more important to me.
We went to Canto Grande, a district of Lima and one of the poorest in all of Peru. We worked at the relief organization Yancana Huasy, where people help children with special needs, including giving them physical therapy. And that was eye-opening because that was the only place in the entire district of millions of people where special needs children could get physical and occupational therapy. Also, there were things that I take for granted as an athlete and a physical therapy student, like hydrotherapy baths. In the U.S., there’s one in any school with an athletic training gym. In Peru, they were so excited to have just one out of very few in the area. Again, I kept thinking about this lack of access.
I’m going to physical therapy school soon and I’m going to find a way to help disadvantaged people, whether I go back to Peru or somewhere else.
By Lauren Liebowitz and Robyn Ross
Photography by Whitney Devin ’10