Social Justice, Hold the Socializing

The Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education found creative ways to maintain SCU’s social justice course requirement in a virtual world.

How do we engage in social justice when social contact is ill advised?

It’s a question many have grappled with since late March when, one after another, U.S. communities shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic. We had to stay apart to stay safe and slow the spread of COVID-19, which has since taken hundreds of thousands of lives around the globe. Our worlds became so much smaller as we took shelter in our homes and stayed as far away as possible from anyone who did not live in them.

Still, the need for social, cultural, and societal change remains. At Santa Clara University, where all undergraduates must fulfill the Experiential Learning for Social Justice (ELSJ) course requirement as part of the Core Curriculum, the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education has been creating ways to serve others from home since quarantine started.

When the community-based learning program began 30 years ago, “it was about allowing students to make connections between what they’re learning in the classroom with what it really means to have a relationship on the ground with someone who is living in a marginalized circumstance,” says Jennifer Merritt, director of Community-based Learning in the Ignatian Center. And it’s still about that today—establishing relationships, even if they’re virtual due to a pandemic. “The conversations with the people working and ingrained in the community allow students to think about the world differently, and have a positive impact on the world.”

Through the Ignatian Center, students can fulfill the community-based learning part of their ELSJ requirement through several programs, including Arrupe Engagement and Thriving Neighbors, which connects students to one of several dozen community partners whose members and clients serve as co-educators. Some SCU students fulfill their ELSJ requirement through immersion trips, also facilitated through the Ignatian Center.

When COVID-19 arrived and students, faculty, and community partners were sent home, Merritt and Undergraduate Studies Assessment Manager Andrea Brewster proposed that the Provost’s Office keep the ELSJ requirement on the docket for Spring Quarter. “One of the options was to just cancel it for the quarter…but we said, ‘Let us just try, let us do something different and see if we can make those connections,’” Merritt says. “And I think, having to rework the way we do Arrupe and Thriving Neighbors has really invigorated both programs.”

Faculty were given an exhaustive guide full of resources to teach these courses effectively in an online format, such as articles on teaching in times of crisis, reflection activity ideas, and options for how to fulfill CBL requirements while doing distance-based learning. With in-person placement obviously off the table, the Center came up with several new ways for students to engage with the community without going into it.
First, Merritt and other staff members conducted video interviews with representatives from different partner agencies, asking them about their status during quarantine as well as faculty-submitted questions related to specific courses. “It could be anything from food security for a food justice class, to questions about depression during quarantine for an abnormal psychology class,” Merritt says. What’s discussed can then be folded into class assignments and discussions, while students are given opportunities to participate in activities with the agency.

For example, Merritt spoke with Daya Sanchez-Palmada, site supervisor with Skills Plus and Independence Network, which helps survivors of stroke and other neurological impairments regain social, cognitive, and physical skills. The pair talked about the impact of COVID-19 on the site’s vulnerable participants, the concern for the mental well-being while the site remains closed, and the loss of personal connection between staff and participants. To help facilitate some connection, students could establish pen-pal relationships with participants or create care packages.

Another way for SCU students to engage is virtual service. “This one is a little complicated but it can work,” Merrit says. “You can get trained to answer hotline calls…some agencies have asked for specific things like a recording of a virtual performance to show people with Alzheimer’s who are housebound. Then there’s traditional tutoring, just through Zoom.”

Brad Shirley ’20 was one of those tutors. In the final quarter of his senior year, the electrical engineering major did his ELSJ placement through Engineering 111 with Most Holy Trinity School in San Jose. If he’d taken the course pre-pandemic, Shirley says he would have physically gone into classrooms and come up with engineering-specific lesson plans. Instead, he conducted virtual math tutoring sessions with Aaron, a sixth grader, over Zoom. “We do math homework and then he asks me about college life or how a Bluetooth speaker works, or how does a microphone work, or a TV work… he’s really smart and very curious,” Shirley says. “It’s cool to talk about engineering with him. I would also show him some of my own engineering projects.”

Though Shirley says the face-to-faceness of traditional in-person tutoring might be preferable, he was still able to make a connection with Aaron online. “I think the alternative would have been sitting through lectures of how ELSJ works within the community, which is not engaging and not the point,” he says. “This is more interactive and I get to actually share what I do and I found I really like doing that.”

The process of switching over to virtual socialization was perhaps most extreme for the Ignatian Center’s Immersions team, whose job is to facilitate trips both locally and globally that allow SCU students to literally accompany those on the margins who are experiencing injustice.

Director Charles Mansour says they made the quick decision to cancel all Spring Break international and domestic programming. “So we had to ask, ‘how do we continue to engage our students and our community partners? Our work depends on two things—the presence of students and travel, and both of those disappeared as options,” he says. “But, really, our work is much more broadly about meaning making and reflection and conversations on topics of social justice.”

After surveying students on how they wanted to continue the work, the Immersions team offered a number of options. These included a book club on social justice (first up: Just Mercy on prison reform), independent projects on the theme of the cancelled immersion trip (for example, one student who was supposed to visit the U.S.-Mexico border and is now curating resources for others to easily reach out to elected leaders on the subject of immigration), and video interviews posted to Instagram TV with members of various host organizations.

While it’s been difficult not to have face-to-face contact with and host organization leaders—and international immersions will likely stay on-hold until at least next year—Mansour says he’s proud of the ways his team has helped students remain immersed in social justice. “Our program does not focus on service, we focus more on accompaniment…in some ways it’s easy to do that virtually than if we were, for example, house-building—you can’t do that virtually,” Mansour says. “But because our focus is on conversation and mutuality, there is a real opportunity to design something that’s still immersive and impactful.”

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Throughout Spring Quarter, the Ignatian Center’s Immersions team posted several videos through Instagram’s IGTV featuring interviews between staff, students, and representatives from host organizations to discuss their work and how those they serve are faring during the pandemic. This video highlights the Kino Border Initiative, a humanitarian group engaged in refugee and migrant work on the U.S.-Mexico border. SCU students were unable to work with the Kino Initiative in-person this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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