Built upon Mercy values, the University continually promotes compassionate service as an integral component of its educational experience. With 80% of students involved in service projects, USJ offers many opportunities for community and civic engagement — through clubs and organizations, Mercy Day, and as part of the First-Year Seminar experience. Two recent service trips exemplify USJ’s commitment to expand the scope of service beyond the local community and encourage students to develop as global citizens — the Guyana Immersion Experience and Habitat for Humanity’s Collegiate Challenge.
As part of Habitat for Humanity’s Collegiate Challenge (HFHCC), eight USJ students and two staff members spent a week in Vineland, N.J. to help build a home for a family in need. The group, diverse in backgrounds and majors, found commonality in their reason for participating: the desire to do something meaningful during spring break.
Ginny Doxsey, M.S., director of Student Involvement & Orientation Programs, said, “The reasons for the trip are personal. Some students love to do service work and feel good knowing they are doing something for others, and some are figuring out their purpose and how they fit into the world.”
With excitement and apprehension, the group arrived on site and met 26 students from Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU), along with their Habitat for Humanity supervisor, Tom Baxter. They were put at ease when Baxter told them, “This experience is about building relationships, not just a house. Take your time and don’t worry if you mess up.” Habitat, grateful for USJ’s involvement for the past six years, believes its Mercy values align perfectly with their commitment to build homes and rebuild lives.
Putting in long hours each day, students from both universities came together to work in teams — finding similarities, establishing bonds, and acquiring new skills. For Melina Dezhbod ’16, the trip allowed her to help others, while expanding her knowledge and experiencing new things. She said: “When I feel the impulse to get involved, I do it because it’s important to create a chain of positivity in the world.”
Karonica Davidson, coordinator of community and civic engagement at USJ, was amazed at how the students’ comfort level and confidence grew by the end of the week. “I loved that they were no longer individuals, but a team working together for a common goal. It was very powerful.”
The local community honored the group with a proclamation declaring it to be “USJ and SCSU Day.” To balance the work with fun, group organizers included laser tag, rock wall climbing, and other team-building activities. Amanda Binghi ’18 appreciated the hospitality they received from everyone: “I didn’t know what to expect. It was exciting to learn new things and give back to the community. I felt empowered by the experience.”
To many, meeting the family who will live in the house was the most meaningful aspect of the trip. The mother, who only spoke Spanish and relied on Davidson to translate, expressed her gratitude to the group, telling them, “My house is your house.” Summing up the experience, Dezhbod stated, “Goodness is not hidden. It can be found.”
Inspiration can come from unexpected places as it did for the USJ Nursing students who, along with staff and faculty, participated in the Guyana Immersion Experience during spring break. Having worked with the underserved population at the Wellness Center in Hartford, the students felt prepared to transfer their skills to the Saint Joseph Mercy Hospital. What they were not prepared for was the profound effect the people of Guyana would have on them. Janet Knecht, Ph.D., assistant professor of Nursing, said the focus is to serve the needs of the Guyanese people and enrich the education of the students. This year, she received a request to provide CPR training for the hospital nursing staff. Next year, the hospital’s initiative is to implement a palliative care intervention unit with USJ’s assistance. “When I first became involved, I thought I was accompanying students on a service trip,” Knecht said. “I never thought it would be so transformational for me.”
During their clinical time at the hospital, the students faced new challenges and experiences. The most personal and meaningful challenge for Sylwia Szumska ’15 occurred when she met an elderly nurse suffering from a terminal illness. As she sat with the patient, Szumska reflected on the value of service:
An advocate of dignified care for the elderly, Szumska will begin coursework this fall in an APRN program specializing in Gerontology.
Spending time in the operating room made one student rethink his focus. After witnessing the compassionate care demonstrated by the nurse anesthetist, Alex Yeakel ’15 said, “It created a spark in my heart and soul to be the person to give a patient a smooth surgery. It was a gift and privilege to experience what the Guyanese people have to offer.”
While the hospital is the main focus of the Guyana Immersion Experience, USJ faculty and students also visit other Sisters of Mercy ministries, including an orphanage and Mercy Wings Vocational School and Daycare, where they provide health education classes.
Cheryl Barnard, Ph.D., vice president for Student Affairs/Dean of Students, taught leadership development and strategic planning to Guyanese nursing supervisors and managers. She appreciates the collaboration between USJ’s academics and Student Affairs divisions. “We are all learning and feeling together because we are seeing things for the first time,” said Barnard. She knows the experience helps students appreciate what they have and become more involved in giving back.
Szumska, who went on this trip to change the world, was changed instead. “I truly became a different person, a better person, and I hope to never lose sight of that. You ‘do’ nursing for the love of life and this opportunity gave me insight and solidified how rewarding this profession is.”
As Beth Fischer, RSM, ’76, assistant dean of Student Affairs-Community and Civic Engagement, recalled her first trip 12 years ago, she said, “I was simply going as a Sister of Mercy, but the minute I stepped off the plane and met the people, I knew I would be coming back.” She believes the students learn things they would not see in a textbook, on a PowerPoint, or learn from a professor. “It’s right there. They go in with their heart and they meet the person heart-to-heart. That’s what makes it work,” said Fischer. “This is USJ’s mission and core values in action — it’s Mercy meeting Mercy.”