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… the human soul on fire’

Alex Coccia | Monday, May 2, 2011

It is truly a privilege when the people who inspire you are not historical figures in textbooks with whom you will never be able to speak. It is a privilege when the people whom you admire are not distant celebrities with whom you will never be able to sit down for a cup of coffee. It is a genuine privilege when the people who do and will make a sincere difference in their communities and in the world are friends who have both listened to your thoughts and taught you so much regarding the issues about which they care so deeply. I am honored, in my final column of the year, to be able to share my thanks for the inspiration that I have received from three incredible seniors.

I met Mary Dewey, Julia Duranti and Bridget Flores through the Progressive Student Alliance (PSA), a coalition of students, faculty and staff whose primary objective is to foster a community in which every member is welcomed, respected and loved without reservation, and which pursues changes to communal norms that inhibit or prevent a culture of respect for the fundamental dignity of the human person. I joined the group in the fall to become active on campus in various human rights issues. I stayed because of the passion shared by its members — none more so than that of Mary, Julia and Bridget, who exemplify Ferdinand Foch’s saying, “The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.”

Mary is a Political Science and Chinese double major who lives in Hospitality House. Julia, another member of Hospitality House, is an Anthropology and Peace Studies double major. Bridget, a resident of Peace House, created her own Latin American Culture and Development major with the help of the Kellogg Institute where she works. Hospitality and Peace are certainly words I associate with these three, but they only brush the surface of the truly beautiful people these three are and how they work to make others.

After graduation, Mary is attending the University of Denver College of Law, where she received a scholarship for the school for Public Interest Law. She plans to specialize in law regarding immigration and human trafficking. There are currently not enough lawyers serving the civil legal needs of poor people, she tells me, and in a justice system where public lawyers are not guaranteed in civil cases, too many life-changing cases are being tried in courts where plaintiffs may not understand what is going on, or may have inadequate representation. Having worked at a legal aid clinic in Denver last summer, Mary found it very rewarding to be able to provide the help and consultation that is in short supply within the high demand of our justice system.

Julia is joining the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) Northwest, where she will live in community with other volunteers and act as the anti-poverty specialist at El Programa Hispano in Gresham, Ore. The JVC emphasizes spiritual openness and depth, examining and acting on the causes of social and environmental injustice in order to promote peace and structural change. Julia will be bringing her experience studying abroad in Chile and Bolivia and her work in the South Bend community this past year. Her senior year especially, she has been able to engage her major and other academic classes with real life situations in the community. Some of the greatest things she has learned from her international and local work have been how to talk to people, how to listen when people need to talk, and how to learn from the people with whom she interacts. Life is a service, she tells me — a belief that all three have taught me.

 Bridget will be working for a year in Austin, Texas, at an immigrant refugee shelter, where she will also hopefully shadow an immigration lawyer working there. Her passion is very much immigration, because, as she strongly feels, “a just immigration policy is needed for undocumented immigrants, so that people do not have to die trying to get to America and so that conditions are fair and humane for both Americans and immigrants.” Law school is one possibility for her after her time in Austin, with specialization in immigration law and other civil rights protections for members of the LGBT community and women. Bridget’s experience working with the Kellogg Institute on campus and developing her Latin American Culture and Development major will be an important background for her as she follows her passion.

Mary, Julia and Bridget are each expressive of and thankful for the people they have met while at Notre Dame. Many Notre Dame students, they agree, create a “community of people who actually utilize spirituality to promote social justice” and who are constantly “looking outside themselves.” Certainly, Mary, Julia and Bridget have found a home in this community and have contributed to the peace and hospitality within it. For Mary, Julia and Bridget, PSA has been a forum and group to develop leadership skills while running social action campaigns that make a lot of progress on campus.

Much of this progress is behind the scenes, within meetings with members of the administration, academic departments, other clubs and student government. They are exemplary models of involvement in their campus community. PSA’s focus has been utilizing direct service and charity in order to address structural issues on campus. Much of their efforts recently have been involved with the LGBT rights movement on campus. It is an issue that many do not want to address, it is an issue that requires structural and environmental changes on campus and it is an issue in which the changes do not come easily. However, Mary, Julia and Bridget have faced these challenges and for the past four years they have made it their goal to get the desired changes. They have been the on-campus leaders for the movement to include “sexual orientation” in the non-discrimination clause and to grant club status to a gay-straight alliance. While four years have passed and these changes have not yet been made, they have made an immeasurable difference in the lives of students, faculty and staff who identify as LGBT and allies. Their tireless commitment to PSA and all that PSA does is truly incredible. Their constant fight for what is right has inspired me and has won my unconditional admiration. They truly embody the sentiment that all life is a service.

Daniel Golston said, “If you’re going to be passionate about something, be passionate about learning. If you’re going to fight something, fight for those in need. If you’re going to question something, question authority. If you’re going to lose something, lose your inhibitions. If you’re going to gain something, gain respect and confidence. And if you’re going to hate something, hate the false idea that you are not capable of your dreams.” Daniel Golston said it; through living it, Mary, Julia, and Bridget have taught it to me.

Alex Coccia is a freshman. He can be contacted at acoccia@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.