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Center for Social Concerns offers diverse opportunities for service

Rohan Anand | Friday, October 19, 2007

After a week of mid-term exams and papers, Saturday’s football game might be the only time of respite for hundreds of students who plan to embark on week-long social concerns seminars during fall break.

For 25 years, the Center for Social Concerns has been facilitating community-based learning opportunities worldwide, including the popular Appalachia and Urban Plunge seminars.

Over the past few years, the CSC has boosted the number of programs it offers to cater to a more diverse range of student interests.

“The Center offers unique opportunities for students to serve in a leadership capacity as a site leader, a seminar coordinator or a task force member,” said Angela Miller-McGraw, the director of Appalachia seminars and educational immersions at the CSC. 

“Each of these provides students with the opportunity to refine their communication, research and leadership skills.”

The bulk of the 357 student participants in the seminars next week will be working in the Appalachia region, where they will serve at dozens of sites in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio.

The region remains one of the poorest in the country, with about 37 percent of residents living below the poverty line in many of the mining counties.

Student participants were given the option to select specific sites to volunteer at during the application process, and once selected, were placed with a site team with members from all grade levels.

Junior Kelsey Larson will be returning to the region for the third time this year and is also co-chairing the program. She said the perspective she gets from traveling to the area is “truly amazing.”

“On these immersions, you meet so many different people,” she said. “We encourage students to go because it broadens their perspective and outlook on life.  You see first hand what is true and what the locals’ lives are like.”

Another portion of the participants will be heading to Washington for the Washington D.C. seminar or to Chicago for the cultural diversity seminar.

The D.C. seminar – which consists of 12 students – will be examining religion and politics. The group will visit the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and will meet with representatives from the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the American-Israel Political Action Committee and the National Association of Evangelicals.

Although some of the larger issues involved in the religion-government mix include topics like gay marriage and abortion, the goal of this year’s D.C. seminar has a historical and informative aspect, which the task force hopes will still sustain effective dialogue among student participants.

“I think the role religion plays in government is misrepresented sometimes, and we’re hoping to explore a wider variety of issues,” said senior Michael Redding, a member of the D.C. task force.

In Chicago, 14 students will immerse themselves in the heart of some of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods. Students who were interested in the Cultural Diversity seminar underwent a rigorous selection process in order to be admitted into this smaller group.

“It was a very self-selecting group,” said junior Laura Meyer, one of the task force members. “We required additional essays to gauge the students’ interest in diversity so that we could compile a variety of different people to participate from different backgrounds.”

Immersion in the culturally rich areas of an urban city will be an eye-opening experience for people too accustomed to the Notre Dame bubble, Meyer said.

“By throwing students into it, it’s like a crash course, where there’s no book reading,” she said. “It’s just the real world and people you’ve never met before.”

Helping to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina has been a popular mission for many students. The Gulf Coast Task Force will return to the area this break, taking a group of 21 students to work with the Catholic Charities Operation Helping Hands.

The task force is not an official CSC Seminar but has some affiliation with the Center in that it receives funds to achieve its objective in post-Katrina efforts.

This year, the group has stepped up from its traditional method of recruiting volunteers to gut destroyed homes in the Big Easy, said senior Nick Albares, who is leading the trip this fall.

“There have been a lot of complex reasons for this change, one of which being the lagging federal money and insurance for residents, and Operation Helping Hands has shifted its focus to rebuilding instead,” he said.

Since it is expensive to hire reputable contractors to pay for the homes to be rebuilt, Operation Helping Hands asked that the task force recruit students with higher skill levels to help with the rebuilding process.

“When you gut a house, it doesn’t take much as far as skills; you can just rip stuff out,” Albares said. “Right now, Operation Helping Hands is looking for people experienced in things like plumbing and electricity to help out, so they imposed a quota of around 20 volunteers.”

Regardless, any hands that can help move projects along will make a difference. Albares, like the other task force leaders, is hoping the participants will fall in love with the people and heritage of the sites they visit.

“I’m really looking forward to a great trip,” he said. “We have a fantastic group of people dedicated to the region, and I’m hoping that people can come away with a new sense of what’s going on down there and it will awaken them to how social issues are playing out down there.”