When Maureen Bergan asks students at service informational meetings how many have been on service trips, nearly half of their hands go up. 

“They are coming from high schools and from solid youth ministries where service learning was required, and they know about justice and doing for others,” she said. “They have grown up doing service, and when they go to college, they expect it.” 

Helping ‘the least of these’ 

Bergan is director of campus ministry at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., a Jesuit school. Student involvement in service, she said, is part of a vibrant faith life that produces leaders and future professionals and volunteers who live out the Gospel message. 

Spring Hill’s 1,350 undergraduates participate in community work projects such as cleaning up yards and cemeteries or gutting damaged houses. At Christmas, residence halls adopt refugee families. 

“Our international immersion trips are the most popular,” Bergan said. “We have trips going to Ecuador, Nicaragua, El Salvador and two in Belize.” 

Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, has 11 service trips, including ones to Jamaica and Ecuador. 

“Each trip is a little different, and we try to have some balance of catechetical evangelism and service component,” said Third Order Regular of St. Francis Father Larry Uhlman, director of student outreach. “Each trip has a basic charism statement, and whether it’s a domestic or international mission, the main thing is that students are putting their faith into action and giving witness to the Gospel.” 

Franciscan’s Works of Mercy has 12 ongoing projects. Students work with the elderly in nursing homes, mentor at-risk youth and drive to nearby Pittsburgh to feed street people.  

“The students share their gifts and talents, and they see how people live in Third World countries,” Father Uhlman said. “Even in our own nation, if they work with the poor in the Bronx [N.Y.] or Chicago, they see a dimension of inner-city life that they might not encounter. They are doing something concrete for ‘the least of my brothers,’ and it is in giving that we receive. They give, and they get back so much more.” 

Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn., run by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, is a commuter campus with 850 students. Dominican Father Jacek Kopera, the new campus minister, continues food, toy and clothing drives in conjunction with Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Nashville and the Salvation Army, and student involvement with parish food pantries and soup kitchens. New this year, students are visiting an assisted-living community to help with field trips and spiritual events. 

“We also will get involved with Catholic Charities in their mission of helping immigrants with their assimilation,” he told Our Sunday Visitor.  

The service projects are grounded in the spiritual formation and sacramental life on campus, he added, and from that grows the students’ desire to transform the world and their community. Living their faith also calls on them to be open to the needs of others, and through those sacrifices, he said, “they can reflect on the values that God has given us.” 

Formative experiences 

The University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., sends students for weeklong discernment retreats and service opportunities at the Andre House in Phoenix, which serves up to 800 daily meals to the homeless. At the end of each day, students reflect on their service, how they have grown in faith and how it might fit into their lives. 

The university’s Center for Social Concerns has 36 service and community-based learning classes, and 55 clubs where students volunteer with the Red Cross, American Cancer Society and Knights of Columbus, be a Best Buddy to individuals with disabilities and mentor at-risk students. They work in literacy programs, building projects, become involved in animal advocacy and more. 

Bill Purcell, associate director for Catholic Social Tradition in the Center for Social Concerns, told OSV that more than 80 percent of Notre Dame’s 10,000 students do some kind of service. 

“That’s over 200,000 hours just locally, which is worth over $2 million to the South Bend economy alone,” he said. 

Furthermore, about 13 percent of graduates go into volunteer service such as the Peace Corps, and more than 70 percent of alumni are involved in some kind of volunteer work. 

“So these are formative years in college,” he said. “Then when they are later involved, they also get their kids involved.” 

Unity with sacraments 

During the summer, Carroll College in Helena, Mont., has a mission trip to Guatemala, and during spring break, some students work with the poor in Cincinnati or Rochester, N.Y. 

“Probably the most impact is staying right here in Montana,” said Father Marc Lenneman, chaplain and director of campus ministries. “We have a good relationship with the De LaSalle Brothers at the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, and going there is a real immersion experience. We help at the school and people teach us about the Blackfeet ways, and that’s really important. We can learn a lot, and there are changed perceptions.” 

Many students realize through their service that there is unity in the sacraments. 

“They see that when they go to Mass and pray for somebody, that changes the experience,” Father Lenneman said. “They see that we are all connected and in the body of Christ, and that changes what Mass means to them.” 

Meaningful service, though, doesn’t require leaving town. 

“Sometimes it means going to a homeless shelter in New York City,” Father Lenneman said, “and sometimes it means just checking in with the person down the hall in the dorm.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Service : A Fruit of Prayer (sidebar)

“One of the things we emphasize is that service is a natural growth, a natural fruit of prayer. If we are praying, then the Lord is going to transform us, and that necessarily leads us to others and service. I think that sometimes that’s sorted out — that prayer is on one side and social justice on another. But what we are really seeing is that students desire both. They desire deep spirituality in the sacramental life of the Church, and for that to be authentic, it has to be lived concretely in acts of love.”  

— Father Marc Lenneman