San Juan del Sur, a coastal town in the extreme southwest of Nicaragua, is some 4,000 miles away from Chestnut Hill—and at a greater distance in socioeconomic terms. But for Associate Professor of Sociology Michael Malec, San Juan del Sur exemplifies the value in bringing the faraway up close.
Malec has organized several service trips with faculty and students to the area, where they have installed ecological water filters and stoves in rural homes and schools, and aided local health outreach. He also has helped to maintain and expand the sister city project between San Juan del Sur and Newton, where he lives.
University President William P. Leahy, S.J., with Associate Professor of Sociology Michael Malec, at the presentation of BC's 2016 Community Service Award. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Described by one BC associate as “a beacon of good citizenship,” Malec was chosen to receive the University’s annual Community Service Award, presented by the Office of Governmental and Community Affairs, which honors a BC employee whose actions exemplify the Jesuit spirit of community service and involvement.
Malec’s colleagues also point out that he has put his ideals into action locally as well as in Nicaragua, as an advocate for affordable housing in Newton and a three-term alderman for the city during the 1980s.
Malec says his 48 years at BC have provided him with ample motivation and guidance to serve.
“I’ve been able to do all this because of where I am,” he says. “The Boston College ethos—‘men and women for others’ and ‘go set the world aflame'—has nurtured me, and along with the people at Boston College, provided a very supportive environment. I feel very blessed to be here.”
Malec’s colleagues, friends and former students (many of whom refer to him as “Don Miguel”) feel blessed themselves for having known him. Nominating him for the Community Service Award, Susan Choy ’11—who participated in the Nicaragua service trip twice—wrote that Malec made it possible for students “to act out social justice ideals by working alongside Nicaraguan leaders to bolster educational resources, engineer a ‘green’ preschool, and improve local water sanitation, among other work.
“By his example,” she concluded, “we can envision how the power of one passionate individual can mobilize a coalition to engage in service against growing global challenges.”
“The service trips Mike Malec leads offer much more than an interesting and fun opportunity to do community service in another country: They are master classes in civic engagement,” wrote Sheila McIntosh, a part-time faculty member in the Romance Languages and Literatures Department. “It has been a pleasure to witness how Mike’s hands-on solidarity with the people of Nicaragua, his respect and admiration for their ability to achieve so much with so little, and his decades of commitment to the Newton-San Juan del Sur Sister City Project inspire Boston College students.”
Malec first became involved with the Newton-San Juan del Sur program through a friend, Newton Alderman Rodney Barker, who described its various initiatives—like constructing and renovating schools, raising donations for medical facilities, and building water-purification and smoke-free cooking stoves—and urged him to “come down and see this place.” Malec did so in 2003, during a faculty-staff trip to Nicaragua organized through BC’s Intersections program.
“I was able to get away to San Juan del Sur for a couple of days, and fell in love with the place,” says Malec, a member of the sister city project executive board since 1999. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to come back here with students.’”
The often formidable task of putting together a service trip abroad, Malec says, was made easier by people like Volunteer and Service Learning Center Director Daniel Ponsetto, Campus Minister Daniel Leahy, and others in Campus Ministry, Health Services and Dining Services (“They were able to help students set up point drives to raise funds for the trip,” he notes of Dining Services).
When all the logistics and arrangements were taken care of, and the trip took place, it exceeded expectations, says Malec. “It was a very gratifying experience. We worked side by side with local families, and that ordinary, daily interaction meant a lot.
“A typical day usually involved stopping at a hardware store and picking up a bag of cement and other supplies. Once at the work site, we’d mix the cement, pour the foundation, and continue with whatever project we were working on until it was completed. So the students got to see the whole process through from beginning to end, and that it is possible for someone to make a meaningful difference in others’ lives.”
The lesson was one Malak Yusuf ’09 took to heart.
“As students and global citizens, during our service trips and beyond, Professor Malec ensured we understood and communicated the power of hope and belief in investing in a society’s youth,” she wrote in her nomination for Malec. “Years after graduation, I still regard Professor Malec as a life-changing mentor and key driver for my commitment to international development and social equality.”
—Sean Smith | News & Public Affairs