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Social Justice and Leadership

Presidential Scholars take the initiative for both in their sophomore year

The Presidential Scholars Program’s Social Justice Committee organized a benefit concert earlier this semester in Gasson Hall for the Educational Development Group, whose program director Frances Laroche spoke at the event. (Photos courtesy of Presidential Scholars Program)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: May 9, 2013

They are hallmarks of Boston College’s Presidential Scholars Program (PSP): intellectual challenges; learning through experience as well as in the classroom; and as a result, the development of leadership skills.

A recent addition to the program’s offerings gives Presidential Scholars the opportunity to not only learn about social justice issues in the Greater Boston area, but to share their findings with the University community — and in doing so, administrators say, perhaps spark wider awareness.

Created three years ago, the Social Justice Committee, comprised of the PSP sophomore class, selects a topic or issue with a social justice dimension that all Presidential Scholars focus on during the academic year — adult education was the choice for 2012-13; last year’s was immigration, and prisoners and gang violence the first year.

There are two distinguishing features to the Social Justice Committee initiative: The students must plan and organize campus events that spotlight the topic and, most importantly, forge a local connection by involving people in the Greater Boston area who can lend their insight and experience.

As part of their examination of immigration issues, the Social Justice Committee sponsored a panel discussion featuring BC employees who had immigrated to the US. In the inaugural year study of prisoners and gang violence, students invited Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to speak at one event, and at another hosted police officers and former gang leaders and prisoners.

“The themes are specifically local,” said Founders Professor in Theology James Keenan, SJ, the program’s director. “There is a strong international-global component to the Presidential Scholars Program, which helps students cultivate an appreciation for the individual’s role in fostering social justice. What this initiative does is to direct that attention to matters of social justice in our immediate environment — the Boston area.”

A valuable stepping-stone for students to the Social Justice Committee, says Fr. Keenan, is their post-freshman year involvement in the PULSE program, which requires participants to reflect on — and seek wider lessons from — the service work they perform at local agencies, organizations and other sites. The rising sophomores live together in Shaw House, where they discuss their experiences and, ultimately, decide which social issue to concentrate on in the coming year.

For Social Justice Committee member Patty Owens ’15, her volunteer stint as a tutor at Suffolk County House of Corrections was a revelation in many ways, especially when she worked with an inmate who was her age, but with vastly different life experiences than her.

“He’d dropped out of high school after sophomore year, and had a child to support,” said Owens. “He was resistant at first to the work we were doing, but at the end, he was reading poetry — Keats, Poe — and enjoying it, and taking pride in what he had accomplished.

“The progress he made was certainly very encouraging, but there was no escaping the reality that this was a small move forward. We, as students, didn’t have the power to truly effect change in his life. He needed the kind of ongoing and comprehensive support that an adult education program provides.

“The more I and the other Presidential Scholars talked, the stronger we felt that adult education is really a social justice issue: For so many people, it can fill the gap between potential and accomplishment. And there are so many groups fighting to help empower people through education — including areas like ESL, microfinance or women’s health, for example — that we knew there was so much we could do in Boston.”

Said Daniel Cattolica ’15, another Social Justice Committee member, “We found in our placements — at Suffolk, food pantries, homeless shelters and ESL classes — that adult education is one of the most defining issues among people we met. It might be someone who didn’t finish high school, but it also might be a skilled doctor who needs English to integrate into American society.

“The concern about adult ed is not only about whether there are enough programs, it’s also about the efficacy of the programs that are in existence: Do they have the resources to succeed, and are they equipping adults with the skills that will help them?”

To help create more awareness within the BC community of adult education’s importance, the Social Justice Committee organized a benefit concert with BC student performers to support the Educational Development Group — which provides ESL classes to local immigrants — and, last month, a panel discussion that included Lynch School of Education Professor David Scanlan; Lynch School graduate assistant and former ESL instructor Christine Montecillo; Sarah Antonelli ’14, the 4Boston leader at the Charlestown Adult Education placement; and Suffolk House of Corrections Director of Education James Dizio.

Perhaps the most important lesson he’s learned, said Cattolica, is the need to marshal one’s concern for social justice reasonably and judiciously.

“It’s often natural to feel like you want to be involved in a lot of causes or projects. But there are a lot of issues out there, and you simply can’t do them all. You have to be engaged at a deep level to be effective, and you have to know what things you can do that will help bring about the change you want to see happen.

“I think that is really what leadership is about.”