Dear Notre Dame,
In high school, service was always followed by the word “hours.”
You were expected to keep track of exactly how long you volunteered and get a supervisor's signature to prove you were there. It felt like prestige came only from the quantity of one’s service.
There are no “service hours” at Notre Dame. Although there’s no requirement, many students turn to the Center for Social Concerns (CSC) to help connect with meaningful opportunities locally, domestically, and even internationally. It’s freeing to move beyond the days of keeping track of your hours and volunteering because you have to. I think one of the best aspects of service is that you don’t have to do it, but you choose to because it’s something that you feel is important. The CSC wants students to be passionate about the places and the people they interact with, and there are plenty of opportunities to get involved with organizations that fit a multitude of interests.
Some of the CSC’s most popular programs are their Social Concerns Seminars.
Seminars consist of 1-credit courses that meet once a week, plus a critical “immersion” component that occurs over fall or spring break. Although other schools offer alternative fall/spring break trips, what I love about the CSC is that they don’t just offer “immersions” or “trips.” They don’t just let a one-week trip be the only week students encounter or connect with that community. They facilitate group discussions, readings, and assignments (both before and after the trip) to help students truly engage with the social concerns relevant to their immersion.
This semester, I’m participating in one of the seminars entitled Act Justly: Racial Justice and the American Civil Rights Movement. Last week, we traveled throughout the American South - Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, Jackson, Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham - visiting historic sites and talking to important community members about the legacy of slavery and the realities of race today.
We saw so many emotionally jarring things, and I’m honestly still processing all of our experiences. We went to the places where MLK and Medgar Evers were assassinated. We visited an antebellum home in Memphis that was part of the Underground Railroad and got to stand where escaped slaves hid until it was time to continue north. We went to a lot of museums, including the Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel and the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum on mass incarceration. We saw memorials and monuments - some simply on the side of the road, like Viola Liuzzo’s memorial, and others beautifully designed, like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, with the names of lynching victims. We saw grassroots efforts to remember history in the Fannie Lou Hamer Park within the impoverished Mississippi Delta region.
Since I’m from Ohio, I never thought I would have the opportunity to travel to the South and see so many of the historic sites important to the civil rights movement. Being in those spaces really does offer a different perspective than you can gather from history books.
But, you don’t have to travel to engage with social concerns.
The CSC offers community-based learning classes (CBLs), which allow students to pair their academic learning with related service experiences right in South Bend.
Last semester, I took an American studies course called Immigrant America with the AMAZING Professor Huynh (highly recommend taking a course with her if you have the chance!). As part of the class, we were required to serve weekly at an off-campus organization. Many of my classmates and I decided to volunteer at La Casa de Amistad as tutors for their citizenship classes.
Being at the forefront of these issues as we helped people prepare for their citizenship test made the classroom material more real and pressing. We knew the names and stories of people whose lives were deeply affected by the policies and narratives we learned about in class. It was one of my favorite courses I’ve taken at Notre Dame, because the academic became personal, and the personal became academic.
I really appreciated that my class was given the space to contemplate ethical dilemmas. Obviously, as students at a great university, we come from a place of privilege. My two hours of service per week at La Casa isn’t going to revolutionize the immigration system. I don’t necessarily feel good making someone who’s been in the U.S. longer than I have, memorize the year the Constitution was written. But, working with one individual to ensure they’re prepared for their citizenship test can make a small-scale impact on their lives.
The CSC offers many other service opportunities, from their Mercy Works program that matches a small group of students with an organization of interest in South Bend, to their popular Summer Service Learning Program (SSLP) and International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP), which pair students with organizations across the country and the world for eight weeks of service.
Although the days of service hours made it seem like service was only a number, I’m so glad the CSC gives us a space to explore social justice in a deeper, more lasting way.