By Deborah Lohse, Associate Director of Media and Internal Communications, Santa Clara University

Santa Clara University seniors look out over Eastleigh, Kenya, during a September 2019 immersion trip with the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education (Photo courtesy of the Ignatian Center)

Santa Clara University seniors look out over Eastleigh, Kenya, during a September 2019 immersion trip with the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education (Photo courtesy of the Ignatian Center)

From their inception, the international immersion trips offered to students at Santa Clara University by the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, have pursued a classically Jesuit mission: to help students become global citizens ingrained with a deeper sense of their place in the world— all with a special focus on social justice in locations of greatest marginalization.

“We’ve always spoken to the Ignatian worldview: questions of what does it mean to be a contemplative in action…the Ignatian pedagogical circle, to see, judge, act, or witness, reflect, respond,” says Charles Mansour, director of immersions at the Ignatian Center. “That is built into all of our immersions, including our international programming.”

While trips to India, Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Guyana have been successful by many standards, in recent years, the Center has worked hard to make sure that the programs it offers truly prepare students to enter communities in a spirit of accompaniment—attentive to the realities of the community members’ lives; listening to the needs of the community rather than perceiving themselves as the source of solutions; and sharing the students’ own gifts as equals.

Students, too, have been asking more and more pointed questions about what it really means for them to “accompany” the marginalized communities they encounter. They would like to be better prepared to engage with these communities, while maintaining humility, curiosity, self-awareness and perspective. Their reflections after immersions have revealed how they sometimes felt tension between the communities’ expectations and their own desires to provide accompaniment.

One such incident surfaced when a cohort of Santa Clara students visited the Dominican Republic. They heard harrowing work stories from a group of Haitian people, who thought that the students would be doing something to help them beyond just listening and learning about their work conditions. In other countries, local communities put on dance or other cultural shows for the students, who felt uncomfortable being treated like visiting dignitaries.

These kinds of interactions have challenged students to think about how to make the experiences more mutually beneficial. “Our students are much more attentive and attuned to the risk of ‘the savior complex’ or ‘poverty tourism’,” says Mansour. “They invite us into even deeper reflection.”

The Ignatian Center has taken a number of steps to align immersions more closely to the goal of true accompaniment. First, the Center is conducting deeper searches for host partners that already have established, respected histories with the local communities. Often, that means finding hosts accustomed to immersions or missionary work, compared to more general connections in countries of interest.

One such partner is the Maryknoll order of missionary nuns, priests, and lay volunteers in East Africa, which has a longstanding and well-regarded reputation for providing health care, schooling, advocacy, pastoral accompaniment and economic advancement in the region. Ten Santa Clara students traveled to Kenya last September, where they were able to shadow health clinic workers who were distributing antiviral medicines, while also learning from families who invited them into their homes.

“The biggest takeaway was the value of finding organizations that have intimate, long-lasting, meaningful and enriching experiences in the community,” says Mansour. “Everywhere we went, we were received not only as students from Santa Clara or as representatives of the United States, but also as part of the Maryknoll network.”

The Ignatian Center also wants to establish a recurring presence at many international locations in order to build strong relationships and connections that can be built upon in subsequent immersion trips. That way, when a group knows that Santa Clara students will be arriving, “There might be a positive association and a real awareness that students are committed to relationship-building, asking questions, and doing these things that are really enriching alongside the community,” says Mansour.

Ensuring respectful accompaniment is an ongoing process. Mansour says, “You need to do so with intention, awareness of the impact that it’s having on the people you are visiting, and an acknowledgement that these are the people who know best.”