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Take the plunge

Shannon McDowell | Tuesday, October 23, 2012

About three years ago I heard about a program offered through Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns called Urban Plunge. This winter seminar is a 48-hour immersion experience of urban poverty that takes place in 35 cities across the U.S.
Each year, 200 students on average choose to spend two days in an urban center to see a “face” of the city that usually goes unseen. They attend four classes on campus, which address urban poverty, and that complement and expand upon the experiential component of the course. These classes give students an academic perspective and formal language with which to articulate their experience.
In January of 2010, I decided to take the plunge in New Orleans, and I’ve never looked back.
My Urban Plunge experience helped me to see that the causes of poverty are indeed quite complicated and intricate. Diligent, working people live in poverty. Responsible, positive contributors to society live in poverty. With one natural disaster, thousands of families in New Orleans lost everything. This experience resonated powerfully with me and taught me that some of the most important lessons are those of sympathy and understanding, and a sympathetic, understanding approach is often the best way to teach them.
A few weeks ago the Census Bureau announced that in 2011, 46.2 million people live below the poverty line, unchanged from 2010. The official poverty rate in 2011 stood at 15 percent, again statistically unchanged from the rate of 2010.
Statistics, though, fail to put a face on poverty. They do not tell us what is being done, and they certainly give no indication of what we can do. There are so many facets, problems, and complications associated with poverty that it is difficult to know where to start. However, Urban Plunge makes it clear that we need to start somewhere.
Our university’s mission statement boldly asserts, “The University seeks to cultivate in its students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings, but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice, and oppression that burden the lives of so many. The aim is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.”
In his 2010 Notre Dame commencement address, Brian Williams told the new grads, “You didn’t go to college; instead, you went to Notre Dame.”
It’s kind of odd, but the truth is that we come here to leave. We’re truly blessed to be here, each and every one of us. But we know that there is still something more to be had. There is something else somewhere out there waiting for us; something that requires us to use our gifts, talents, and the skills we have learned to make a corner of the world a little bit happier, brighter, or more hopeful.
But the thing is, we don’t have to wait until we have left to make a difference. We all come to Notre Dame for a purpose, or maybe, we come searching for a greater purpose; something to fight for, to stand for, to learn from. We have the Center for Social Concerns and so many other institutes on campus; the resources to help us learn, listen, and serve are almost limitless.
Make the world a better place because you’re a part of it. Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. Be a part of something larger than yourself. Step outside your comfort zone. Make someone smile. Take the plunge.
Shannon McDowell
Pasquerilla East
Oct. 22