By Shaily Menon, Ph.D., Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, Saint Joseph’s University

Photo of student volunteers courtesy of Saint Joseph’s University

Photo of student volunteers courtesy of Saint Joseph’s University

I learned about the Philadelphia Service Immersion Program (PSIP) soon after I arrived at Saint Joseph’s University in August 2017. PSIP is a four-day optional early move-in experience for incoming Saint Joseph’s freshmen involving community service, intellectual discovery and urban exploration. The goal of the program is to introduce new students immediately and intensely to our Jesuit values of social justice, service to those on the margins, moral discernment and intellectual inquiry. The program is designed to be holistic and includes intellectual, service and cultural components.

I was intrigued by what I heard about the program and interested in participating and supporting it. The goals and activities of PSIP aligned with my passion for liberal education, experiential learning and community engagement. My alma mater is Saint Xavier’s College, Mumbai, India, so Jesuit education is part of my background and Ignatian values of social justice and service learning resonate with me. I wanted to experience PSIP for myself, and see firsthand the impact it made on incoming freshmen.

Finally, in August 2019, I was able to participate by spending the entire day with a group of PSIP students. Grace Young ‘22, the student leader of our PSIP group, had participated in the program the year before as a freshman and loved it so much that she returned for a second summer, this time as part of the leadership team. I was both touched and impressed by Grace’s organizational skills and the care with which she led the group throughout the day.

My day began with breakfast with the students, after which we took a bus to our site, Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission. The bus ride into Center City was about 45 minutes long and we had the back of the bus to ourselves. This gave us a chance to get to know each other: I enjoyed hearing about the journeys that had brought each student to Saint Joseph’s. We talked about their fears and anxieties about the start of college, as well as their dreams and aspirations. We talked about the value of a liberal arts education and of experiential learning. They said that this conversation was opening their eyes to remain receptive to all the possibilities at college.

We arrived at Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, where we would spend the morning performing service. (The students would return every day for the next four days to continue to work on the service projects they began that day.) A staff member welcomed us and shared the history of the Mission and gave us a quick tour. Founded in 1878, Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission is the second oldest organization of its kind in the country. Originally called the Sunday Breakfast Association, the name was later changed to Rescue Mission to reflect their expanded services: “Helping the Hungry, Homeless, and Hurting.” Rescue missions are similar to a traditional homeless shelter, but focus on caring for people’s spiritual and practical needs.

We donned gloves and split into two groups to sort through donated clothing and personal care supplies. After we had sorted all the clothes into piles, we went up to the stockroom, where we were asked to organize several large bins on shelves in a way that would make it easier for the staff to find and reach items. The students quickly realized that the arrangement of the room made it hard to move around. We realized that if we created a larger aisle, we could access the shelves and arrange the bins more easily.

But the students were hesitant to implement the plan because it wasn’t exactly what we had been asked to do. After some discussion about the vision we believed the staff was trying to achieve, we decided to reconfigure the room, but agreed that we would quickly change it back if the staff objected. When the staff member returned, the students were initially hesitant to explain the change, and then relieved when the staff member enthusiastically praised the new design for the room.

After our morning of service, we had a Philadelphia immersion experience of my choosing (we watched the Apollo landing film at The Franklin Institute) and then ended the day with a meal in the city and took the bus back to campus. All of the student groups would meet later that evening for reflection.

Grace Young ’22, was a student leader for the 2019 Saint Joseph’s Philadelphia Service Immersion Program. She led the group that Menon joined at the Sunday Breakfast Mission and later shared some of her reflections on the experience:

“As leaders of PSIP, we were asked to reflect on the meaning of our service with our group in order to bring depth and purpose to our day. After Dr. Menon introduced us to this intentional approach, I noticed each of us feeding off of each other’s proactive energy as we offered our own perspectives and ideas to perform our tasks with creativity and heart-felt intention.

This was empowering to experience for myself as a leader because I saw each of us realizing how rich our experiences were when we fully immersed ourselves in them and, as Dr. Menon eloquently stated, saw ourselves as ‘partners of the vision’ of the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission. It was really special witnessing the bond that comes from different hearts and minds fully taking on that partner role and working for and with each other for a greater good, which to me is at the heart of PSIP’s mission and is why I love the program so much.”

The small incident at the sorting site and their initial resistance to the idea affected the students more than I thought it would. They said they had come to the service-learning project with a checklist approach – get a list of tasks our service partner wanted us to do, and then check off each task when it was completed. Sort the clothes. Move the boxes. Stack the bins. They hadn’t fully considered the staff’s plans for a new distribution system or imagined the work that would be happening beyond their service project. Now they saw themselves as partners in the process, understanding with empathy the goals of the service partner and then using innovation and systems thinking to share in accomplishing the goal. And they learned that they can bring empathy, creativity and systems thinking to every project they do.

The service immersion experiences, such as this one with PSIP and a more recent weeklong immersion at the U.S. Mexico border with the Kino Border Initiative as part of the Ignatian Colleagues Program, have helped profoundly in my work at Saint Joseph’s. These powerful experiences are reminders of the purpose of higher education to change lives and of the Jesuit call to be people for and with others.