Engaging Fairfield Alumni in Service

Engaging Fairfield Alumni in Service

by Virginia Weir

“This was the experience of a lifetime,” said University Trustee Tom Franko ’69. “I have talked to everyone who will listen about my experience in Nicaragua.”

Franko’s words echo the sentiments of eight Fairfield alumni, one Jesuit, and a retired Fairfield University professor who spent a week in February visiting Nicaragua, laying the groundwork for future alumni service trips.

“It was a prototype for what an alumni service trip could be,” said the Rev. James Bowler, S.J., facilitator for Catholic and Jesuit Mission and Identity, who co-led the trip with Janet Canepa ’82, director of Alumni Relations. “Everyone came back with a clearer view of the how and why of Jesuit education. They also came back closer to their God, to their true selves, to one another, and to their community.”

Despite the fact that none of the travelers knew each other before the trip, the group felt an immediate connection – a closeness that grew stronger through the week as they witnessed situations both joyful and despairing.

Just hours after arriving in Managua, the group visited Hogar Belen, an orphanage for children with severe physical and mental disabilities. Daily bus excursions included stops at other sites where poverty was equally evident. Franko’s journal described these visits well:

The orphanage is desperately poor: tin roofed, open air buildings, little more than shacks, children who can’t walk, and a staff that is making do with little. A preschool in the Ayapal barrio is much the same, a dedicated few trying to teach the children and parents in an area, lighted with pirated electricity, next to a seasonal lagoon that is a source of malaria and dengue fever. The Managua city dump, on fire and polluted with toxic metals, is the home of about 2,200 people who try to earn a living by scavenging in piles of mixed garbage, including human waste …

These harsh sights, however, were tempered by visits with Nicaraguans experiencing success through the help of microfinance loans and other non-profit initiatives.

Don Carlos Polanco and his extended family raise cows and crops on a six-acre cattle farm; in the town of Nandasmo, a talented artisan makes wooden toys in his home to sell; and in Las Mesas, in the Sweet Honey Beekeeping Cooperative, 23 women keep bees to produce and market honey-based products. Through these visits the group experienced the beauty of Nicaragua, the warmth of its people, and their commitment to overcoming poverty.

The alumni group visited Fairfield’s sister university, Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in Managua (see the Spring 2008 issue of Fairfield Now). While on campus they attended a conference on service learning in Latin America and the Caribbean featuring the extensive work of Fairfield faculty in Nicaragua. The group met with administrators, faculty, and alumni to learn more about UCA.

“One thing that the folks at UCA kept talking about is the importance of listening,” said Dorothea Brennan, M.A.’81. “It’s not for us to go down there and say ‘We think you ought to do this.'”

The travelers were impressed by the way the UCA community lives the Jesuit mission and its commitment to social justice. Dr. Betsy Gardner, retired professor of psychology, summarized the group’s reaction well: “UCA is a model – the core, the curriculum, the outreach, the community – from which we have a lot to learn. When studies and activities are framed in terms of the outward-facing question, ‘What can I do?,’ it’s a call to action.”

The group created a long list of practical things to be done, including helping to provide support for UCA students studying at Fairfield and offering guidance to UCA’s newly formed alumni association. With his contacts, Greg Magner ’81 is already working on sending baseball equipment to UCA, as well as new mattresses to the orphanage.

Even as they re-immerse into their daily routines, the group continues to share thoughts and ideas. Kelly McClure ’81 recently distributed her reflections on suffering, gathered both on the trip and through conversations with family and friends. Michael Knight ’73 frequently e-mails information to others in the group on microfinancing initiatives and Nicaraguan politics.

This steering group, along with the alumni chapters, is working to further engage alumni with Fairfield’s Jesuit mission. “This reconnaissance trip was just the beginning. Janet Canepa and I have been talking about creating alumni service trips for almost two years,” said Laura Incerto ’81. “To see it finally come to fruition was amazing for me.”

Each visitor had a different experience, but all came together with a strong sense of gratitude for the journey and a desire to offer similar spiritual experiences to other alumni. As Kathleen Griffin ’83 said, “I have no doubt in my mind that there are many alumni out there who want or need an experience like this in their lives.”

As the trip concluded, Griffin asked UCA’s general vice president, Silvio Aviles, S.J., the question that was on everyone’s mind: “As alumni, how can we fulfill our spiritual mission when there is so much to do?”

Father Silvio replied, wisely and simply: “Just lifting one’s gaze to new frontiers – to the marginalized – will evangelize you.”

For more photos and reflections from the trip, please visit: www.fairfield.edu/alumninicaragua. The Office of Alumni Relations is planning future alumni service trips. If you are interested, please contact them at (203) 254-4280, or alumni@fairfield.edu.