Global Citizen Seminar faculty and students during their educational immersion trip last month to Haiti, which included visits with Jesuits, activists, educators and community leaders.

If the mark of a good class is that it’s as much a learning experience for the teacher as the student, then Boston College’s Global Citizen Seminar qualifies – three times over.

A collaboration between the schools of Law, Social Work, and Theology and Ministry, the seminar made its debut last fall, bringing together three faculty members and 20 graduate students to explore some of today’s most pressing global issues – including poverty, ecology, migration, and refugee crises – through the prisms of different academic and professional disciplines. 

But there was more: Participants were called to consider the responsibility of the individual – whatever his or her background, profession or credentials – to confront problems with compelling human dimensions. How, they were asked, should we each be a citizen of the world?

“The course title conveyed the idea perfectly,” said STM student Madeline Jarrett. “To me, the word ‘citizen’ implies accountability to the society or community of which you’re part. In an increasingly interconnected world, we are part of a much larger community – what are our obligations to it?”

Starting out with an exploration into attitudes, values and beliefs that shape perceptions of the world – from Ignatian insights to cultural humility to human rights – the seminar delved into areas such as poverty, inequality, food security, environmental justice, international migration, and asylum and refugee issues. A weeklong educational immersion trip to Haiti last month brought to real life – sometimes in stark fashion – the concepts that had animated class discussions, and provided some meaningful lessons for faculty and students alike.

“I feel we three learned a lot,” said BCSSW Associate Professor Margaret Lombe, who taught the seminar with STM Assistant Professor André Brouillette, SJ, and Associate Clinical Professor Mary Holper, director of BC Law’s Immigration Clinic. “Perhaps the most important thing was about needing the discipline to ‘make haste slowly.’ It’s not easy to do, when we see the problems of poverty and injustice play out before us, and we feel we must act. But it’s crucial to first reflect on and process what we see, without automatically thinking in terms of a solution.” 

The Global Citizen Seminar came out of discussions more than two years ago between deans and senior administrators from Law, BCSSW, STM and the University Mission and Ministry division on initiatives to promote interdisciplinary learning and Jesuit values. Several different faculty members were involved at the outset, and eventually Lombe, Fr. Brouillette and Holper were asked to create the seminar. 

The three didn’t know each other, but set about getting acquainted and sharing ideas – including what to call the seminar.

“One possibility for the title involved the phrase ‘working professional,’ but while that was appropriate for the social work and law students, it didn’t seem to fit for STM,” said Fr. Brouillette. “The idea of being a neighbor – who is my neighbor, who do I need to take care of? – was a major theme in the discussions. And then we talked about getting students to see themselves as neighbors in a wider context, where they could put their interests, skills and backgrounds to use on behalf of others – ‘global citizens.’”

 Working with assistance from Mission and Ministry, the three faculty members hammered out a syllabus and format, whereby each would present a weekly lecture as “lead professor” (or occasional guest speaker) with complementary talks from the other two, followed by small interdisciplinary and large group discussions. 

 Seminar participants were intrigued and inspired by the enhanced perspectives they developed through the various talks and supplemental discussions and readings. 

“I have interest and experience in refugee issues, so this class really appealed to me,” said BCSSW student Lazaro Silva, whose family were Cuban refugees. “What I liked was how the seminar pushed you to think outside your territory: What are the laws that support, or work against, refugees? What does Catholic teaching say about helping refugees?”

“Margaret spoke about how international aid can sometimes be harmful to communities in need,” recalled Jarrett. “The aid can sometimes strengthen one part of a community at the expense of others; or it may prevent people from holding their government accountable for not doing its duty. To me, it demonstrated how compassion for those in need may lead to counterproductive results.”

Holper was similarly impressed. “André gave a lecture on Jesuit discernment, and finding one’s vocation: ‘What am I good at? What do I like doing? What does the world need me to do?’ I felt it was a revolutionary way to talk to law students – these are great questions that they should ask themselves.”

Haiti presented a fascinating, complex application of the seminar’s themes and concepts: a nation that has struggled with poverty, political corruption, natural and environmental disasters, and a contentious relationship with its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. During their visit, seminar participants met with Jesuits, activists, educators, community leaders and others with insight into Haitian life and society. 

For the BC group, some aspects of the trip raised troubling points about race, inequality, impacts of American foreign policy and other questions that had no easy answers. But it also showed them that devastating and desperate circumstances often bring out the best human qualities.

“Despite all they’ve been through, the Haitian people are incredibly resilient,” said Ryan Shannon ’15, a Lynch School of Education graduate student in the seminar who served as trip coordinator. “It’s impossible not to be moved by the hope they have for their country and for each other.”

The BC visitors were particularly struck by a Jesuit, Ambroise Dorino Gabriel, SJ, who talked about the determination he and his fellow Haitians felt to improve life in their country. Fr. Gabriel, along with his colleagues, urged the group to be “ambassadors” for Haiti – to tell others about the good, as well as the bad, and do whatever they can to help.

The Jesuits’ charge provided the perfect impetus for post-seminar conversations and actions, according to the faculty and students. In addition to sharing thoughts and impressions among themselves, participants are considering how they might present these to the wider University community – perhaps through several campus events.

What happens after that? The students are continuing to reflect on and process what they learned through the seminar, and how it might affect their respective career paths. The three faculty members hope to run the seminar again in the near future.

“I think one important thing to come out of this,” said Lombe, “is that when we adapt the languages of our different professions and disciplines to one another, there is a lot of new understanding – and a lot of grace.” 

Sean Smith / University Communications