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Students serve through winter seminars

Emma Driscoll | Tuesday, December 5, 2006

A few hundred students will trade in some of the free time offered by winter break this year to get involved in social issues through the Center for Social Concerns (CSC)’s winter seminars.

The 316 students – which, according to CSC Urban Programming Director Rebecca Pettit, is an increase from last year – will participate in seminars like the Church and Social Action: Urban Plunge; Organizing, Power and Hope; the Holy Cross Mission in Education; and Border Issues.

The four-week long break between the fall and spring semesters – when final exams are over but new classes have not yet commenced – serves as a perfect opportunity for some students, like sophomore Meghan Soriano, to get involved.

“I have more free time to really just enjoy [the seminar],” said Soriano, who plans to take part in a two-day Boston Urban Plunge, “and not have some of the added pressures that maybe a fall break or a spring break seminar would have had.”

While many students may see the break as an excellent opportunity to participate in service, constraints on the amount of openings in the winter seminars still exist. Pettit noted in an e-mail that “all winter seminars have a limited number of students that can participate due to resources and the capacity of the hosting sites.”

If forced to choose among applicants, Pettit said that priority is given to students who “have demonstrated interest in the topic of the seminar.” The CSC also takes into account timeliness of the application and previous seminar experience, she said.

The majority of students applying for winter seminars apply for the Urban Plunge, Pettit said, adding that the program has more than 35 locations in major cities. More positions mean a higher acceptance rate for applicants.

Students have various reasons for participating in the seminars.

“Some are motivated by their faith; others have a deep interest in the topic or have a desire to learn more,” Pettit said.

Growing up in a suburban environment impacted Soriano’s decision to participate in Urban Plunge.

“To be really honest, I’ve never really been exposed to an urban environment as much,” she said. “This just looked like a really good opportunity to me to travel and just … get hands on with a community service project.”

Since the Urban Plunge experience will be so new to Soriano, she said that she looks forward to “gaining a different perspective … a way of thinking I didn’t have before, that I wasn’t exposed to before.”

Freshman Miriam Olsen applied for Urban Plunge in Kansas City because of the possibility of establishing a connection with her home community.

“I thought that it was a really unique and … relevant way to do community service,” said Olsen. “And I like the idea of being able to do service in my own city.”

While students do have a strong desire to learn more about the world around them and contribute to communities through the seminars, there are still some reservations because the seminars provide an unfamiliar experience from students’ day-to-day lives.

“We’ll be eating in the soup kitchens that we’re working in and sleeping in the urban situation,” said Soriano. “I do have some hesitation in that regard, but not enough that it would prevent me from going or anything like that.”

Similarly, Olsen feels “nervous” about Urban Plunge and anticipates a definite “shock value” to the whole experience.

“Afterwards, I hope to enjoy the experience so much that I continue to go back to the site where I volunteered,” said Olsen.

The football season at Notre Dame – and the possibility of a bowl game – does affect the applicant pool for winter seminars, but Pettit said the number of applicants has not suffered. Still, “potential bowl game dates were considered during the initial planning of the seminar dates,” she said.