Student Stories

Seeking impact, students find transformation in SSLP

By: Emily Garvey

July 25, 2018

When asked during interviews why they want to do the Summer Service Learning Program (SSLP), many students say they want to make an impact in a marginalized community.  

Emma Horwath, a rising senior majoring in Political Science and Spanish, said in her initial application as a second year student that she wanted to do an SSLP in order to use her skills and education “to help others in struggling circumstances, and find ways to generate opportunities for them.”

Horwath spent eight weeks last summer at Hopeprint in Syracuse, New York, an organization that serves resettled refugees. She lived and worked there, organized meals, directed day and evening programs for children, and mentored high schoolers.

In reflecting on the experience afterwards, Horwath noted how her desire to make an impact had shifted. She remarked that it was the relational aspect she now valued and emphasized, rather than impact. She advised future applicants to be open to all religions and backgrounds, to love the children and people at the site, and to be flexible. While each of her responsibilities at the site had the capacity for making an impact, what struck her most was that the experience allowed her “to grow as both a person and a worker.”

This shift away from seeking to make an impact to seeking to learn often occurs in students participating in service learning experiences. Research shows that immersions like the SSLP impact students in multiple ways rather than the other way around.

For instance, participants in social justice service learning reported personal outcomes such as increased understanding of identity, spiritual growth, moral development, and career discernment. There were social outcomes as well, such as cultural and racial understanding, increased social responsibility, activism, and citizenship skills.

In addition, research reveals a paradox that focusing more on service and less on wealth can sometimes lead to earning more. A study from the University of Georgia finds that students who graduated in 2010 made an average of $4,600 more in the first year of their first full-time job if they had participated in service learning courses while earning their degrees. When compared to those who hadn't taken service learning courses, they also received their first raises more than two and a half months sooner.

Christine Mai ‘19, served last summer at Sr. Maura Brannick Clinic, which provides healthcare services to the unemployed or working poor in South Bend, Indiana. “At Notre Dame, we’re taught to make an impact, to change the world. So we go into our SSLP thinking that’s what we should do,” she says.

Instead, Mai noted that her goal of making an impact shifted after spending eight weeks at the site, much like it did for Horwath. “I didn’t do all the doctoring things I thought I would be doing, but I got to help run the clinic in little ways, and that makes a huge impact in the end.” Moreover, Mai noted that she learned how to listen better, and that her perspective about the people at her site changed a lot. “I knew the stats about this population, but now I know the people, I know their lives. Working there made all the issues really real, and it was the faces and stories that changed that for me.” Mai’s experience at the clinic cemented her desire to pursue medical school and become a physician.

Both Horwath and Mai applied to the SSLP with well-intentioned desires to make an impact at their sites. Instead, in post-immersion conversations, they noted that it was the SSLP experience that impacted them.

Horwath is participating in an SSLP for a second time this summer, and she returned to Hopeprint. In her second SSLP interview, she was asked the same question as last year, “Why do you want to do a SSLP?” Her answer this time points to the significant shift in her approach to service as a result of her first SSLP. “I look forward to strengthening my existing relationships and making new ones. I want to explore themes of human dignity, justice, and faith through the lens of public health,” she said.

As a second time SSLP participant, Horwath’s coursework assists her in delving more deeply into issues of social justice and marginalization by proposing a directed readings project. This time around, Horwath is approaching her work first as an opportunity to grow and learn. She writes, “I want to look at Hopeprint through the a public health lens. I now have a clarity about my long term goals. This includes pursuing a Masters of Public Health after graduation. Gaining any experience I can in that field will set me up for success at the next level.”

Both Horwath’s and Mai’s participation in the SSLP indicate that making an impact and being impacted are not mutually exclusive concepts. Their experiences demonstrate that if a student’s intention is first to be open to being impacted, they may gain the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to subsequently make an impact in the community.