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Ever-growing Immersion programs let students live out Jesuit mission

January 31st, 2013

John Carroll University’s mission statement reads, “As a Jesuit Catholic University, John Carroll inspires individuals to excel in learning, leadership and service in the region and in the world.” It is in this mission and responsibility that this institution prepares its students for the world. In addition to academia, which provides a core curriculum used to produce the often-recognized “well-rounded” individual, JCU offers its students a number of important opportunities to broaden their perspectives and to strengthen key values to be utilized in future endeavors. One program particularly aligned with JCU’s mission is the Immersion Experience Program. It is a program that acts as a gateway for the students of JCU to live and experience this lasting mission far beyond campus.

The Immersion program has been expanding. With the welcomed increase in student interest, the program has worked  to organize more Immersion options to accomodate with the growing number of applicants. In addition, it has been faced with the difficult issue of funding that many organizations encounter during expansion.

A collaborative effort from the Center for Service and Social Action and Campus Ministry, the Immersion program provides participants with the opportunity to immerse themselves in a community of different cultures thereby engaging in the realities of the world. Five values compose the core of the program: education, service, social justice, community and spirituality.

Strengthening these components in each participant is a common goal of the program. Living simply is also an integral part of the trip and allows participants to directly experience poverty and social injustice.

Carrie Pollick, the coordinator of social justice initiatives and immersion experiences, and Ted Steiner, coordinator of immersions and special programs, head the program and organize the numerous immersion experiences offered every Winter, Spring and Summer break. Pollick, an alumna of John Carroll who went on numerous immersions during her undergraduate career and after, distinguishes the difference between these experiences from other service activities.

“These Immersions are much more than a service trip, which is why we call them immersion experiences,” she said. “Through the experience of living in the community, meeting the people and being in direct contact with their struggles, people broaden their perspectives and strive to work for justice. And that work does not end when you leave. The trip is for a week; the experience lasts a lifetime.”

Steiner detailed the link between academics and these immersions. “We are an academic institution. But as a Jesuit institution, we are called to carry the learning out of the classroom and into the real world, where there are real problems and real people who are living lives filled with struggle,” he said.

Students have a wide variety of locations to choose from. Numerous domestic and international immersions are offered by the program. Only a month into the year 2013, four trips have already occurred, and nine more are scheduled and in current preparation. Immokalee, New Orleans and Louisville are three of the domestic experiences, while international trips stretch across the globe, landing in countries such as Guatemala, Nicaragua and even Africa, with an immersion departing for Uganda this May.

Some trips are organized with focus directed towards a particular area. One example includes a yearly May immersion to Honduras that centers on medicine and has created a draw for many students who wish to pursue a career in the health professions.

Applications of hopeful participants pile high onto the desks of Pollick and Steiner, who are then faced with the decision of determining who will be accepted into the program. After a candidate interview and discussion between Pollick and Steiner, they fill the spots for each trip. Despite its recent growth, the immersion program cannot accommodate all who apply.

Yet, with the opportunity to apply for an experience every year, and the numerous location options available, students rarely find it difficult to be selected; some attend as many as three by the time they graduate.

As the student interest in these immersions has increased and more trips have been added, there is one area of the Immersion Experience Program which has failed to adopt this growth – the issue of financial support. Immersion experiences are expensive, with domestic trips ranging from $425 – $875 and international trips totaling between $1,700 – $3,000. These prices prevent many from participating in the immersion program.

To accumulate adequate funds to finance their immersion trips, students use fundraising techniques such as writing letters to family, colleagues or other organizations asking for donations

Junior Tyler McTigue said writing letters is effective. “I wrote letters to family, friends and past employers where I explained what I was doing and where I was going. I asked for their support and if they wanted to provide any financial assistance,” he said. “When all the letters were accounted for, I ended up with $200 more than what I needed, which was donated to my group.” He added, “People really do care about what you’re doing and where you’re going and want to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in any way they can.”

Despite the effectiveness of these fundraising techniques, some students still fall short of their required amount. Fortunately, the immersion program is able offer some financial aid. Most of the funding for this financial aid comes from the Student Activity Fund, with additional contributions coming from Campus Ministry and the Office for University Mission and Identity. However, it can sometimes be difficult distributing the funds from financial aid, especially when so many apply for financial assistance. In the recent January 2013 immersions, out of the 87 students who applied for, 49 applied for some financial aid.

Some uneasiness can arise after realizing that more than half of those who apply for immersion trips feel as though they would need financial assistance in addition to personal fundraising. As the program continues to grow in size and global reach, the limited financial aid funding will eventually fail to meet the needs of some participants.

Senior Katie Warner experiences this anxiety. Warner, an advocate of immersion experiences at JCU, received financial aid for her recent immersion trip to Guatemala. She believes that her trip may not have happened had it not been for the additional funding.

“These experiences have become an integral part of my college career, making me more culturally aware and inspiring me to pursue a broader worldview,” she said. “They pushed me past my comfort zones and released me from the bubble I was living in. My immersion experiences have had such a lasting impression on my life that I hope that any student who wishes to participate in this program in the future will always have the opportunity to do so, regardless of their financial background.”

Paul V. Murphy, vice president for University mission and identity, hopes to calm these uncertainties. Murphy, who attended last year’s immersion trip to Jamaica, joined in the advocacy of the importance of these experiences.

“The idea of encouraging a student to go beyond his or her comfort zone to cultures that are foreign to what they grew up is an essential element of the Ignatian character of this University,” he said.

He went on to explain that due to its importance in the eyes of the Jesuit community and the common belief in the importance of the immersion experience, funding will always be available to assist students. “Mission and Identity play an important role in the funding of the immersion experiences, and we will always work to promote these important trips that exemplify the Jesuit ideal of learning beyond the classroom,” he said.