Moving Margins through Postgraduate Service

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Karen Manier, Lead Coordinator, Postgraduate Service, Center for Social Concerns, February 2019.

The Center’s theme this ​year—a lens for focusing our work, given the vast number of social issues confronting our world—is “Moving Margins: Living the Option for the Poor,” an important tenet of Catholic social teaching. We are called to the margins, the edges of society, to stand alongside the over 13 million forgotten and discarded men, women, and children living in poverty in the United States. alone. But more than that, we are called to move those margins—to bring the outsiders “in,” or, in the words of Fr. Greg Boyle: “If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased.”

It would be difficult to find a group of Notre Dame graduates who are more clearly living the option for the poor, who are more directly working to move margins, than those who decide to commit a year or two to full-time service. In the past few years, about 7 percent of the Notre Dame graduating class, approximately 150 students annually, report that they are leaving the familiar world of campus and resisting the appeal of a paycheck to venture out into the world as volunteers in one of the hundreds of programs serving those living on the margins. In the past, the number of seniors making this choice hovered closer to 10 percent, peaking slightly higher around the time of the recession in 2009.

Postgraduate service was and still is a viable option for graduating students, drawing large numbers of students from the College of Arts and Letters who are looking for ways to translate their intellectual pursuits into solutions for social problems, or College of Science students seeking to round out their medical or graduate school applications while engaging in good work. In fact, students from every College at Notre Dame have pursued postgraduate service. Since 2013, over 900 graduates have spread out across the country and throughout the world to accompany the marginalized—the hungry, thirsty, homeless, sick, and imprisoned—and to work for social change.

What is postgraduate service? On a practical level, service looks like a job in a nonprofit organization or governmental agency. It might involve tutoring children from low income families or adult ESL students, helping connect former inmates or homeless vets with housing and jobs, or providing compassionate presence to the developmentally disabled or terminally ill. “As a case manager, I [did] everything from conduct initial intake interviews to prescreen clients, coordinate medical appointments, and provide much needed social support to clients,”  writes Liz Donohue ‘06 , of her service year with Amate House. Deirdre Harrington ‘15, International Economics, Peace Studies, was a member of the Domestic Abuse Response Team with the Los Angeles Police Department through Good Shepherd Volunteers; Carissa Brownotter ‘11, Civil Engineering, taught math classes and mentored students at St. Michael’s High School on the Navajo Nation; Peter Fink ‘17, American Studies, Pre-Health,  was a community health specialist at Portland’s Wallace Medical Concern during his year with Jesuit Volunteers Northwest.

There are a large number of postgraduate service positions in social service, education, and ministry. But there are other opportunities too, like working at the United Nations or the Legal Aid Foundation in Chicago, Interested in restorative justice? Spend a year with Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago or Dismas House in Massachusetts. Environmental justice seekers can serve with the Atlanta Sierra Club, the Center for Creative ReUse, or the Southwest Environmental Center. There are postgraduate service opportunities in advocacy, organizing, responsible lending and investing, and human rights. Service can be urban farming, building houses, or providing disaster relief. It can be communications, design, accounting, and nonprofit administration. Service work is as varied as the needs of individuals and communities.

There are many practical reasons to do service. Graduates who participate in postgraduate service develop knowledge and skills, gain relevant experience, flesh out resumes and graduate school applications, build networks, earn education awards, and qualify for scholarships and grants. Student loans can often be deferred during the service year(s). Service allows recent graduates to live out their faith or contribute to creating a more just and humane world.  

But more than that, postgraduate service transforms. Opening yourself to the pain of others requires a willingness to be vulnerable, to come face to face with your own fears and limitations. And this openness is the crack that lets in the light, allowing us to see more clearly. Thomas Merton writes, “We discover our true selves in love.” Serving others, giving the gift of presence and relationship, creates space for the kind of self-knowledge and sense of purpose that can only be gained through struggle, through stepping outside your comfort zone and seeing yourself in a new way.

In a 2016 letter to The Observer, My Most Worthwhile Educational Investment, Megan Hrdlicka '11 reflected on her postgraduate service at L’Arche Greater Washington, D.C., “While I was taking a big step into the unknown, doing so may singularly be one of the best decisions I’ve made to date. I unwittingly gave myself the gifts of time and space to learn and think and care in ways I had not allowed while caught up in the school grind... L’Arche allowed me to discover new passions, but more importantly helped me develop the skills that are making me more successful in pursuing these passions… In these two years, I learned about grace; I learned about love; I learned about patience; I learned about people and how to care for one another’s humanness; I learned about priorities and what really, deeply matters to me and to others.” Perhaps going to the margins is like moving to the empty space on the edges of the page, the place that invites us to reflect, edit, create. And in doing so, graduates become the best versions of themselves.

Explore postgraduate service opportunities available through the Center. Contact Karen Manier to schedule an appointment. 

 

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