Not Limited to Classroom Walls

By Erin Hallissy

CILSA's 10 years of community service and scholarship

Bonner Leader Vince Sison at the General Assistance Advocacy Project.

Vince Sison '08 remembers the homeless man who walked into the San Francisco advocacy agency he worked at through the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action at Saint Mary's. The man wanted to apply to the Art Institute of California, but he had no resources to complete his application, nor access to the Internet to apply for federal financial aid.

Sison helped him, and the man left satisfied. Months later, Sisson was in the office when the man, then an art student, returned.

"He presented me with a painting he crafted himself in one of his classes," Sison recalls. "It was probably one of the greatest things I have ever received, and it adorns the wall of (the agency) to this day. I would like to believe that he is on his way now to graduation, and finally creating a life for himself as an incredible artist.

"My assistance changed his life, and ultimately, he changed mine."

Sison's experience evokes the words of Saint James, who wrote, "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? … Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead."

Amber Jones in the Jumpstart early education program.

Helping others, changing lives and fostering social justice — on campus and in surrounding communities — has been a hallmark of CILSA during its 10 years at Saint Mary's.

Founded in 1999, the institute has evolved into a growing network of students, faculty and staff members that promotes a culture of service and social justice education derived from Catholic social teaching.

Its work has brought the College national accolades. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has recognized Saint Mary's as a leader in incorporating community engagement into the academic curriculum, and SMC is on the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.

Among CILSA's programs are community-based research courses that allow collaboration between faculty and student researchers with off-campus organizations, a Jumpstart program in which peers develop and present classroom activities for preschoolers, a Bonner Leader program for student leadership development, and service-learning courses.

In such courses, community settings are extensions of classrooms. Psychology professor Mary True, who taught a January Term course "Poverty, Policy and Preschools in Urban America" in conjunction with Jumpstart this year, says her students were energized by working two afternoons a week in a model Head Start preschool in Oakland's Fruitvale district.

"It was tremendous," True says. "I've taught for 30 years and I've never seen such carryover between an assignment and a class."

Students saw that the preschoolers' parents, who made less than $20,000 a year, struggled economically, but their children were well-cared for, polite and eager to learn.

"My students had such empathy and deep love for these children," True says. They also "saw themselves in new ways, as competent teachers and as models for the children they worked with. At least half a dozen told me they wanted to go into early education."

Transformative Experiences

Students work at Alameda Point Collaborative during a Saturday of Service.

Director Marshall Welch notes that CILSA's slogan during its 10th anniversary year is "head, heart and hands," which is borne out by True's students and others who have found its programs a defining experience of their time at Saint Mary's.

"They get so much. They start to discover their own sense of self," he says. "They start to explore their place in the world. They can see direct tangible results of what they've done. It goes beyond getting a grade."

Milad Sarkis '04 says he cannot look back at SMC without thinking of CILSA. He was a Bonner Leader for two years, and then collaborated on and ultimately helped stage a successful event in 2002 — the first Carnival 4 Kids, which brought inner-city schoolchildren to Saint Mary's for an afternoon of games and fun.

"We jumped at this fantastic opportunity because we knew that it had the potential for being a transformative experience for both the inner-city children and the greater Saint Mary's community," says Sarkis, who worked with Maryann Ferris '04. "We knew that in order to make the Carnival 4 Kids everything it could be, the entire SMC community had to take ownership in it, and make it their own. Everyone — from the youngest freshmen, to the dining services staff, all the way up to the president of the College — stepped up to the plate and helped out."

The event, which is held annually, brings hundreds of schoolchildren to campus where they interact positively with college students, professors and staff.

"That is the epitome of what CILSA is and will continue to be: a location where anyone can come up with an idea and see it fostered and nurtured to reality," Sarkis says.

Bridging Theory and Practice

Danny Wecks at Carnival 4 Kids.

Leo Guardado '04, who now works in SMC's Mission and Ministry Center, says CILSA also helps undergraduates see the "greater reality of life outside of beautiful Moraga."

"Students were given new and creative opportunities to engage the world of justice, compassion and citizenship," he says. "Class education became enhanced with service-learning, and as a whole, education began to aim not only at the mind, but also the heart."

Ferris agrees that CILSA programs enlivened her academic studies through social justice events and forums for reflection.

"This showed me the relevancy of issues discussed within the classroom, thereby deepening my learning and challenging me to continue to bridge theory and practice." she says.

CILSA also works with professors on engaged learning courses in fields ranging from politics and religious studies to education and business administration.

Sociology professor Cynthia Ganote has taught three engaged learning courses since coming to Saint Mary's in 2007, including an ethnic groups class on African Americans in which students analyzed data on access to health care for vulnerable people in the Bay Area and wrote an executive summary of the findings for the Women's Economic Agenda Project in Oakland.

Ganote will teach a 2010 Jan Term class in New Orleans in which students will do community-based research for the local United Way on ways that nonprofit and faith-based groups can develop greater bridges among organizations to get services to New Orleans residents who need them the most.

"Through methods that go beyond the traditional classroom, students are able to explore the theories they're learning in a very new and complex way," Ganote says. "They're doing indirect service that's designed to help change social policy or to get at the root causes of problems, and they're working at an extremely high level of academic rigor. It's very challenging for the instructor and very challenging for the student."

Ganote praises CILSA for its "unbelievable quality" in training workshops, one-on-one consulting with faculty and connections with community partners.

"What we have at Saint Mary's rivals the best," she says.

Making an Impact

Daniel Reyes at LEO Center in Oakland.

Alumni say they benefited greatly from such courses.

Anton Taruc '06 came to Saint Mary's from the Philippines, where he was used to poverty, but he was shocked that a wealthy country like the United States could have areas like San Francisco's Tenderloin district.

"This question led me to enroll in a class called ‘Faith and Social Action,' and it was here that I really began to develop an understanding of social justice," he says. Working for Catholic Charities of the East Bay, he developed a program for high school students to expose them to service opportunities while educating them about the root causes of poverty.

"During my once-a-week conversations with my family back in the Philippines, I always told them how my education in America has not been limited to the classroom walls, but has in fact taken place mostly outside the classroom."

Erik Johnson '05, the public information coordinator for the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, says CILSA helped him use lessons from his politics classes outside the classroom.

"Applying skills learned in my ‘Research Methods' class to help a community organization that works with homeless youth demonstrated the practicality of what we were learning and provided a way to give to others in a meaningful way," he says. "We analyzed surveys of homeless youth using statistics software and were able to help the executive director get a picture of the commonalities among the people she serves."

Johnson says he still benefits from the interdisciplinary approach in his career.

"Without the experiences I had through CILSA, I don't think I would have brought the same level of confidence and interest to projects," he says.

Looking Ahead

Fabiola Matasol during a summer internship program.

Welch says that CILSA will continue to grow in programs by not just providing services but by empowering students to delve into an intellectual inquiry on why the services are needed.

CILSA is now exploring having a physical presence in under-resourced areas of Oakland where SMC students and faculty would develop a curriculum and teach classes on subjects including nutritional and financial literacy.

"The best way to learn is to teach," he says. "New service learning classes would create materials and we would have a center where we would provide these resources to neighborhoods on a regular basis. Saint Mary's students would learn about issues and go out into the real world and apply them — why do we have to have nutritional programs, why do we have to have a financial literacy.

"It's not just a service project. This is much more robust learning and a deeper experience. This is really engaged scholarship. By combining what is learned through critical reflection and action, CILSA's mission truly lives out through integrating the head, heart and hands."

CILSA has a number of events during its 10th anniversary year. For more information, check