Emily Danchisin, a member of the Dorothy Day Social Justice Living/Learning Community at Marquette University, volunteers for Central City Churches Outreach Ministry at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church Thursday, Nov 5, 2009. Danchisin is helping a client with paperwork at the pantry. (Catholic Herald photo by Matt Dixon)

Students interested in service learning opportunities during college often go to West Africa, India or China. Not so for 44 students at Marquette University. The fall semester marked the beginning of the new Dorothy Day Social Justice Living/Learning Community for sophomores wishing to serve and learn in their community.

Jim McMahon, dean of residence life at Marquette University and assistant to the university’s vice president who has been involved with Marquette for the past 16 years, said the Dorothy Day community program is a result of a continuing 2002 program called “CommUNITY.”

The year-long, two-semester program for freshmen entering Marquette was created so that students could discover how to develop leadership skills through planning and implementing social and educational programs with cultural themes, including dinners, speakers and retreats. Each year a majority of the 70 students who participate want to keep that experience going, according to McMahon.

“Students were coming out of that (program) asking, ‘Can we continue this in some way?’” He explained. “We couldn’t continue that in its current form, but we decided we’d look at a similar living/learning program for sophomores.”

A group that included the vice provost and faculty members from student life sought a solution.

“We began to look at what would the program look like, what would the focus be,” he explained. “We kind of brainstormed that, and the notion of social justice pretty quickly rose to the top. It’s very much what our students are passionate about; it speaks to the university mission, and so that’s what we settled on. That would be the focus – social justice.”

Marquette’s residential student building Straz Tower was chosen to house participating students, with one floor designated for each gender. In addition to their own course load, students in the program must attend two specific semester-long classes during the year: Philosophy of Human Nature during the fall semester, and Christian Discipleship in the spring. The classes are taught specifically for the community participants.

Dorothy Day (1897-1980)

combined her political passion for justice and equality with her religious commitment for serving the poor. In 1933 the journalist, social activist, distributist, rebel and devout Catholic convert, along with fellow activist Peter Maurin, began the Catholic Worker movement, which published an influential newspaper and founded a number of hospitality houses to serve the homeless in New York, and eventually all over the world. 

“Those are both living/learning courses, so the students are required to choose a service experience in the community, and we often have about a dozen different options,” McMahon explained.

Students are expected to give at least three hours a week of their time at their service site, though many choose to spend more time than required.

“They bring those experiences back both to the classroom and to the (residential) floors where they have some reflection opportunities and some informal conversations,” McMahon added.

Based on the interests of the participants and the needs of service sites, each student is paired with a service site ranging from environment to education, from fair-trade to poverty, according to McMahon, with Marquette’s Service Learning office helping them connect to sites.

Although the program is new, McMahon has heard positive feedback from participants.

“Oh, it’s been terrific,” he said. “They are just passionate about what they’re doing.

They turn out for everything, whether it’s required or not. We had this reflection evening about a month ago, and all but two people showed up, and those two had reasons that they weren’t able to be there.

“They’re inviting different speakers in to talk about issues of social justice; they’re spreading the word throughout the campus. Many of them are in leadership positions either within the residence hall or another student organization,” he added.

Molly Milota, an English major, said the program helped change her perspective on life.

“At this point we’re half-way through the semester, and (we’ve) really become sort of a family,” she said last fall of the group. “We’re really close. Even though we don’t have the exact same experiences, we’ve been able to experience them anyway. We do have reflection sessions, which are really nice because you get to look at everyone else’s experiences and see how they’re similar to your own.

“Those are nice because a lot of the time diversity focuses so much on socioeconomic factors and race, and a religious background. This one is more on your, mine, and how you feel about what’s happening in the world around you. It’s been really eye-opening,” she added.

Milota, who is volunteering at Repairers of the Breach, a grass-roots homeless outreach and provider of the area’s only daytime shelter and resource center for homeless people, is an alumna of the CommUNITY freshman program, and entered the Dorothy Day program as a way to follow her interests.

“I’ve always been really interested in learning about the different issues, and learning about other people’s perspectives from different social justice issues,” she explained. “I would say that (the program) really provides you with an opportunity to connect, because it’s one of the few places on campus where you are doing so much with the same group of people, and so you really get to know them on a much more personal level than you would with your regular classmates or your floormates, than just your regular college setting.”

John Ebbens, a senior with majors in biomedical and political sciences, and residence advisor for the male floor in the program’s residence hall, agrees the community setting makes the Dorothy Day program unique.

“The community that we’re able to provide on the floor, I think that’s really important, too,” he said. “I know just going through my floor, almost every day, every door is open. It definitely feels like a community, really feels like a home more than a residence hall.

“People are hanging out in the lounge, really getting to know each other. It feels so much more than a residence hall, which I guess is one of the things that I was really looking for in terms of establishing a successful program. This has been really good for our residences,” he added.

Emily Danchisin, another member of the Dorothy Day community, also participated in the CommUNITY freshman program. The English and theology major agrees that living in community helps her understanding of service learning.

“One of the challenges for me was doing service learning for the first time,” she said. “I wasn’t really sure how it worked, but I’ve gotten used to it now, so I know what to do and where to go, that kind of thing.”

Danchisin’s service learning site is located at the Central City Churches Outreach Ministry, part of Our Savior Lutheran Church, where she helps with the food pantry.

“I’ve just met a lot of great people, and it’s nice to see that there are other students on campus, like in my year, who are really passionate about issues that are present everyday, especially because we’re a city campus,” she said. “You see homelessness every day. People who are thinking, ‘I should make a change or maybe we can make a change,’ (it’s exciting to see).”