Student Stories

Immersions like the Summer Service Learning Program help students with vocational identity and stress relief

By: Emily Garvey

January 18, 2019

Being a Notre Dame student can be stressful. “When I think of one word to describe the mindset of a typical Notre Dame student, I think ‘perfectionism’,” said Notre Dame alum Allison Bartoszewicz, ‘18. “It’s this trap you get caught up in of competition and anxiety, and it induces stress instead of peace.”

Bartoszewicz credits her Summer Service Learning Program (SSLP) experience with teaching her how to step away from the stressful experience and look creatively at her future goals. “My SSLP made visible my limits and vulnerabilities, which could’ve led me straight to despair. Instead, though, I allowed myself to receive love despite all my humanity—from the residents at the site, from myself, and primarily, from God. And thus I didn’t leave that experience feeling inadequate, but instead, so liberated.”

After her summer service in Jackson, Mich., Bartoszewicz worked in Medvode, Slovenia, at L’Arche, a community for people with disabilities. She is now living in Trujillo, Honduras, at the Finca del Nino, an orphanage for abandoned children. “The sense of freedom and peace from my SSLP has become something of a Heavenly GPS in my life, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it has led me to more communities where I can’t hide my humanity behind walls of comfort.”

Results from a study conducted by Santa Clara University on college student immersion trips suggest that Bartoszewicz’s experience is fairly common. In the study, students reported after the immersion a stronger sense of vocation identity, how to use their personal strengths to positively make an impact in the world. They also indicated having better coping skills with regards to stress in their lives. In fact, the results noted that this was especially true for males.

These results didn’t come as a surprise to Owen Tuite, ‘18, currently in Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education Program. He credits the SSLP with helping him see things differently. “The occasional existential crisis that plagued me at college meant little after I spent so much time with other people in other situations,” he said. Exposure to the different realities that people face, along with an awareness of systems of injustice, strengthen immersion participants’ ability to handle stress.

The program also helped Tuite resolve questions about his major and long-term career goals.  “When I first applied to the SSLP, I was an undecided business major. However, there was a large disconnect between who I was and what I was studying. This was stressful because I was uninterested in my classes and applying for jobs and extracurriculars I didn't believe in. The SSLP gave me the context and courage to discern who I am and pursue what I am called to do. I now teach high school math in Denver and could not be happier." In other words, participants in immersive service experiences help students see the bigger picture, in which their end goal appears clearer and daily stresses appear smaller.

Many undergraduate programs throughout the country offer students the opportunity to develop their vocational identities. The research from Santa Clara confirms that a service immersion is one way for students to discern what they want to do with their lives. “Notre Dame tells you to develop yourself as a whole individual. You can’t do that after you graduate and are busy, so use the SSLP to build yourself now when you have a whole summer to figure out what you want to do,” urges Luke Michels, who completed his service immersion at Camp Ozanam, a wilderness adventure camp for children. As a sophomore majoring in engineering, Michels found it particularly helpful to do the SSLP. “Engineering is about making people’s lives better, literally making the world a better place, and that’s what the SSLP is about too. You don’t get a lot of formation through the courses in engineering, so the SSLP really helped do both of those things for me.”

When asked about how the SSLP impacted his ability to cope with stress, Michels said, “I definitely came back more confident, more peaceful, and able to let things go more.”

A study on participants involved in similar programs demonstrates that the altruistic actions associated with service experiences result in a greater sense of well being, longevity, and less stress. One possible explanation for the benefits of service experience may be that students faced with other examples of human suffering and marginalization gain perspective on their lives, as well as new skills for handling stress.

Service immersions help students hone their ability to cope with stress and discern short and long-term career goals. This year’s application deadline is February 1, and Michels is currently encouraging his peers and dorm mates to pursue an experience like his. “I’m telling my friends that a SSLP is going to develop you, which is what Notre Dame wants, so do the SSLP.”


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