Centering Relationships (and other duties as assigned)
Taking a Year for Volunteer Action
Every year, several Gonzaga graduates cap off their educational experience with a year-long commitment to volunteer service before pursuing their careers or further education. On May 12, Gonzaga commissioned 13 such Zags from the Class of 2023. Congrats and best wishes to these individuals and those with whom they serve:
- Audrey Buller – Alliance for Catholic Education; Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- Conor Burke – Jesuit Volunteer Corps; Harlem, New York
- Ariana Chin – Peace Corps; Philippines
- Emma Gashi – to be determined
- Matt Harkness – Jesuit Volunteer Corps; Austin, Texas
- Avery Kain – AmeriCorps; Spokane (with Gonzaga’s Center for Community Engagement)
- Lilia Klute – Jesuit Volunteer Corps; Sacramento, California
- Rory McCarthy – Jesuit Volunteer Corps; San Diego, California
- Gracie McRae – Teach for America; O’ahu, Hawai’i
- Joy Oakes – Davis Projects for Peace Fellowship; Kimana, Kenya
- Joseph O’Hagen – Jesuit Volunteer Corps; Boston
- Emily Shiraishi – AmeriCorps; Spokane (with Gonzaga’s Center for Community Engagement)
- Maria Truong – Conservation Corps; Rocky Mountains, Colorado
Having taking a year following his undergraduate degree to serve with Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Andrew Newman ('16, '21 J.D.) understood what this commitment meant. Here is his message to members of the Class of 2023 on their coming year of community engagement.
I am fortunate to be a double Zag. I say that I’m fortunate because this school was the birthplace of some of the greatest parts of my life. I met my wife here. I met my best friends here. And It’s where I first learned about social justice and being in proximity to those on the margins. But it’s that last portion that I want to talk about today. I won’t stand up here and pretend like I have advice for your service year ahead of you. The only thing I can offer you today are stories of my time leading up to, during and after living in Atlanta during my time in JVC.
I’ve struggled as to put into words what my time during JVC meant to me. Whenever I get asked to speak on the topic of social justice, my mind always goes to Father Greg Boyle ('77), S.J. of Homeboy Industries in L.A. and Bryan Stevens of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. I won’t bore you with all of the reasons that I admire these two so much, but for me, the essence of their work comes down to being in relationships.
To me, there is nothing in this world without being in relationships. You’ve experienced it during your time at Gonzaga and you’ll celebrate it all weekend long. Graduation is about celebrating your relationship with your friends, classmates, teachers, family, school, and most importantly, yourself. Relationships are the reason that I, and maybe you, find leaving Gonzaga so difficult. And relationships will be at the center of your work and time during the next year or more. You’ll be in constant relationship with your housemates, co-workers, friends, family, God, and yourself. These relationships will make your experiences fulfilling, difficult, and help shape you for the rest of your lives.
I was very fortunate in that when I found out I was going to Atlanta to work at Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School, I already knew that one of my closest friends from Gonzaga was also placed in Atlanta. Little did I know that when I was sitting in your seat seven years ago, there was a third Zag also placed in Atlanta. I stepped into my year in Atlanta already knowing two of my five other housemates.
Much like everyone who graduates college, the shift to the “adult world” can be challenging during a normal transition. Now when you add living thousands of miles away with multiple strangers in a house that was clearly not meant for six people, it makes it even more challenging. Add in your personal spending stipend is $100 a month and suddenly your life feels very different than it did a few months prior.
However, it’s these same challenges that will bond you and allow you to be in a closer relationship with the people you live and work with. It’s these relationships that will sustain you during hard times. I was forced to lean on strangers I hardly knew when I found out that my mom was diagnosed with cancer shortly into my time in Atlanta. Yet, that experience deepened, and sped up, the relationships I was building with my housemates.
On the other hand, it would be unfair of me to not acknowledge that my time in Atlanta was not all that it could have been. I flew home more often than I should have and I relied heavily on my friends and family at home when I wanted to escape the hard times. I’ll be the first to admit that I did not get out of JVC all that I could have. And I regret that to this day. I often wonder what my time would have been like had I been courageous enough to embrace the messiness of JVC, and more broadly, life. I hope that you do not leave your time with the same regrets. Be present for the good times, but more importantly the hard times. Struggle through the messy parts of life because seven years down the line, you might find yourself in a better position for it.
JVC is hard for non-JVs to understand because often times it’s hard for JV’s to understand. Each house in my year was different and learned to build community in different ways. I encourage you to dive into your community with both feet and grasp every opportunity that comes your way.
"Other Responsibilities As Needed"
Now, JVC would be difficult enough with just the living situation, but we haven’t even talked about your first experience working full-time, yet. If you’ve ever worked at a non-profit, you will deeply understand what I am about to say. Working at a non-profit is a lot like the line in a job posting where under responsibilities, there is the catch-all “and all other responsibilities needed by the organization.”
At your work placement, you will do almost everything, and I mean that in the most literal way possible. During my time working at Cristo Rey Atlanta, I worked as a work-study associate, I served lunch on a daily basis, a bus attendant, I worked in the campus ministry officer, I coached both boys junior varsity and varsity soccer teams, I chaperoned events and all other responsibilities needed by the organization.
All of these different tasks came with their own positives and negatives, but the job that I absolutely cherished most was serving lunch every day. My most meaningful job for an entire year was asking every student whether they wanted ketchup, mayo, barbeque sauce, or mustard with their lunch. It will forever be my favorite job. Partially because it was incredibly easy, but more so because it gave me the opportunity to build a relationship with each and every student who walked through my station.
Over the course of the year, I was able to watch each of those students grow in their own ways. I saw awkward freshmen grow socially. I saw students struggle with trauma. I saw students ask each other to Prom and grow their relationships with each other. I saw students make mistakes and I saw students flourish as they slowly found out who they were.
I was able to observe all these things from behind my condiment section of the lunch line. I hope that each of you can find your own version of the lunch line condiment section. I hope that you can be in proximity and relationship with the people you work with, regardless of what non-profit you are working at. It was being in proximity and relationship with my co-workers and students that I realized that I had nothing I could teach them. I found out quickly that being in a relationship means being equal. Being in a relationship means being attentive with no preconceived notions. It means knowing that you are called to be present, no more no less.
My relationship with my wife doesn’t work if I feel superior to her. My relationship with my friends doesn’t work if I feel I need to teach them the right way to do things. And I quickly found out that my relationship with the students at Cristo Rey Atlanta would not work if I felt superior to or that they had things to learn from me. And to learn this lesson, all it took was being roasted by a freshman boy in front of an entire class. I was not placed to guide these students, but to walk alongside them on their path. And for them to walk alongside me on my path.
These are lessons that I take with me to this day. It informed my time working for the Special Olympics. It informed my time defending low-income tenants facing evictions. And it informs my work with school districts.
JVC shaped and continues to shape my life as I make fundamental decisions today. I hope and pray that you enjoy the good times, the challenges, and the relationships you build along the way. I encourage you to dive headfirst into your communities and work placements throughout the next year or more. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself utterly confused why you’re discussing the pros and cons of Wifi for the fourth consecutive night.
Thank you and again, from the bottom of my heart, congratulations on this exciting weekend.