Ryan Villegas Discovered His Passion at Saint Mary’s and Now Pays It Forward

If not for the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA) at Saint Mary’s College, Ryan Villegas ’18 doubts he would be teaching middle school students Latin in Arizona. He reiterates how his life was transformed as a student at the College, and how he found what he (didn’t know) he was looking for.

Villegas discovered his passion after realizing that he could positively affect the lives of others. CILSA helped him to open his eyes and free his heart, and to embrace the opportunity to be of service to those who are less fortunate and often fall under the radar of compassion and care.

“They taught me how to find my vocation,” said Villegas, who was inspired to teach through his CILSA experiences, including work with formerly homeless youths at the Alameda Point Collaborative (APC), and with the Jumpstart preschool program in Oakland. “I found that the dynamic of mentorship was something that I loved, and it was something that I was totally new to.” Villegas added that being a mentor to the young children gave them hope and reassured them that they mattered. Being present and engaged with the children also allowed them to have a vision for the future of what they could aspire to become and achieve. “Hope after homelessness is essential for the kids.”

Doug Biggs, Alameda Point Collaborative’s executive director credits their 15-year collaboration with CILSA and Saint Mary’s students for much of the growth and success of the collaborative—from establishing the community’s urban farm to constructing greenhouses to developing its volunteer-management programs. “There is a bond that develops between the students from Saint Mary’s and children they work with,” said Biggs. “The result is a transformative experience for both the student mentors and the youth they serve.”                                                               

While CILSA’s work is easily evidenced in the transformation of students in its signature programs, most Saint Mary’s students experience CILSA through its support of community engagement courses and the evolution of Saint Mary’s curriculum. Nine years ago, the undergraduate faculty voted for community engagement to become a component of the required Core Curriculum. Since that time, CILSA staff and student leaders have provided essential support to faculty, community partners, and students in courses where academic learning is linked to community-based activities.

Political Science Professor Patrizia Longo was one of the first faculty members to incorporate community engagement into her coursework, partnering with organizations in areas such as gender politics, restorative justice, and economic justice. “CILSA has been invaluable in helping me to foster and sustain such partnerships. It has been a dream come true,” said Longo.

For Villegas, discovering his passion as a CILSA student at Saint Mary’s, and now being able to sustain his passion by teaching underrepresented students is life-changing—and more than he ever imagined.