Set the World on Fire

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In 13 days, I will be graduating from my college, Saint Joseph’s University.

I just paused to re-read the sentence about four times, because it is a phrase I never thought that I would type.

There is simply no way I could adequately put into words what the last four years have meant to me. When I chose to come to Saint Joseph’s University, I came here because I wanted to stay close to home and I thought the campus was pretty. I had no idea that SJU would shape me into a completely different human being. I have been changed in the best possible ways, I cannot even begin to thank my professors, mentors, and peers enough for that.

When I started my time here as a freshman, I still remember so vividly moving into my freshman dorm and meeting my suite mates. I had a picture in my mind of how college was going to be, and I was truly only concerned with partying and meeting people. The joke was on me, because SJU had other plans for my time here. Within my first three months of school I knew that this was not going to be a typical educational experience.

My classes, service opportunities, and spiritual development at SJU have made me realize that it is my moral obligation to become a member of society that is with and for others. I believe that it is my job to live my life fully, ethically, and with the spirit of Saint Ignatius within my heart.

Saint Ignatius often ended his letters with the phrase, “go forth and set the world on fire.” I believe that SJU prepares it’s students to do just this. I never want to lose feeling of setting the world on fire, so I decided to have the Ignatian sun symbol tattooed on my back last week. I hope that each and every time I look at this symbol, I can remember what I learned at SJU, and that it’s up to me to set the world on fire.

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Twitter for Good

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The reason that I initially started this blog is because I have become absolutely fascinated with the intersections of social media and social justice. I have spent the last four years as a communication major learning about how social media can be used as a force of good in our world.

This obsession began my sophomore year when I read a book entitled “Twitter for Good: how to change the world one tweet at a time.” This book is written by Claire Diaz-Ortiz, Head of Corporate Social Innovation and Philanthropy at Twitter. This book opened my eyes to an entire field that I knew absolutely nothing about: using social media to strategize and create social campaigns that work toward achieving social good.

Claire uses her knowledge and insight to explain everything from finding your voice, to contacting influencers on Twitter, to creating an effective campaign. My favorite takeaway from this book is the T.W.E.E.T. framework (Target, Write, Engage, Explore, Track) which is Claire’s five-step model for success on Twitter.

As a college student, I am constantly being told that my age group only uses social media to one-up each other, or to perform a certain identity. Reading this book reminded me that we are all capable of ethically and mindfully using social platforms to work toward a goal much bigger than ourselves. It highlights the incredible power that social media has in order to create a movement.

This book is highly recommended for anyone who is working to understand how to use twitter for good, or is just trying to figure out how to develop a true voice on twitter. This video explains Claire’s methods a little further.

Take The Phone Off the Hook and Dissapear For a While

Last week, I had my Spotify on shuffle when one of my all time favorite songs came on. “Vienna” by Billy Joel has always been one of those songs that stops me right in my tracks. No matter where I am, when I hear this song, I always stop to take a moment and reflect.

Slow down you crazy child
You’re so ambitious for a juvenile
But then if you’re so smart tell me,
Why are you still so afraid?

Slow down you crazy child
Take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while
It’s alright, you can afford to lose a day or two

So what does this song have anything to do with social media? When I hear this song, I almost always think about my unhealthy attachment to my iPhone and social media. This past semester, I’ve thought more deeply about my attachment to my phone and my reliance on social media, and the effect that both of these things have on my anxiety levels as a college student. I’m constantly checking snapchat updates, refreshing my Twitter feed, and liking Facebook posts. Whenever I have a free minute at a stoplight or before a class begins, I almost instinctively reach for my phone. The question that I’ve been asking myself for the past few weeks has been…why am I so afraid to be alone?

As I discussed in a previous blog post, I was able to spend a week on a service trip in the Appalachian mountains a few weeks ago. One of my goals for this week was to cut back on checking my phone. At first, I constantly felt the urge to check my phone..almost as if my phone was a drug. But as my week went on, I found myself wanting to check my phone less and less. I was able to be present to the many experiences I had throughout my week. And it dawned on me. Why can’t I cut back on my phone usage in my every day life? Why did I have to travel to the Appalachian mountains to see that my phone addiction was unhealthy.

I think that I will always love my phone, and I will always want to check it. But since my service trip, I’ve made an effort to check social media less and less..and I can honestly say that I’m already feeling better and more in tune with myself.

Scenic. Busy. Friendly.

I spent the past week in a region that I have come to love and appreciate deeply over the past four years: Appalachia. Through a program called the Appalachian Experience, 500 SJU students travel to Appalachia over their spring break, in order to serve and learn with the communities there. There are over 17 sites across Virgina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. This year, I traveled to the Alleghany Highlands, and more specifically the town of Clifton Forge, Virginia.

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I had been on two trips to Appalachia before, so I thought I knew what to expect. I thought I knew that I would meet incredible people from an incredibly kind and loving small town. I thought I knew that I would most likely splatter paint over every single article of clothing that I brought to the trip. I thought I knew that I would get to know 25 new people from my university. I thought I knew what to expect.

What I didn’t know, was that this trip would continually break my heart into a thousand tiny pieces and put it back together again. What I didn’t know, was that I would lose the urge to touch my phone and check on what my friends were doing back home. What I didn’t know, was that this trip would lead me to persistently question the larger social justice issues in regards to our environment, economy, and the way that we perceive the people who live in this region. What I didn’t know, was that the pure faith and love that this community has for God and others would lead me to question my own faith, and what I value in my life. As a senior, I ignorantly believed I had seen it all through my previous trips to Appalachia. I thought that I’d experience nothing new.

The town of Clifton Forge sits in the Roanoke region of the USA, and the economy relies primarily on the WESTVACO Paper Mill. We learned that many people move away from Clifton Forge to attend college and find employment. Because of this knowledge, I giggled about when I first read their town motto: Scenic. Busy. Friendly. But as our week went on, I began to realize that they could not have had a more fitting motto.

Scenic.

Clifton Forge has some of the most beautiful and breathtaking landscapes I have ever seen in my life. I have never understood when people have told me that nature makes them feel closer to God. But sitting alone one day in the middle of our week, I had a moment. We had just finished work for the day, and the sun was sitting over our house on the hill. Exhausted, I had found a grassy spot on the hill and was looking out over the mountains. It suddenly hit me that all of this had to have been planned by someone…something. The way that the light hit the mountains and warmed my face was nothing short of a blessing and I was overcome with emotion.

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Busy.

Boy, did they keep us busy during our week in Clifton Forge. Each day, the incredible people of the town who had helped plan our stay made sure that we were fed breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Our full work day was from 9-4:30, and we often had activities or reflections planned for our evenings. At the end of our days, we were emotionally and physically exhausted. Each night, I went to bed with a million questions in my head, and often fell asleep replaying my day and thinking about all that I had experienced.

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Friendly.

The people of Clifton Forge are special. I could even say that they’re magical. There are no words adequate enough to describe the overwhelming kindness and hospitality that we experienced. Each and every person that we met over the course of our week got to know us on a deep level, and asked us questions about our lives, our values, and our deepest beliefs. When it came time to get on our vans and leave Clifton Forge, there was not one dry eye in the Church that morning.

I am so thankful that I decided to travel to the Appalachian region one last time. My experiences in this region have touched my life in ways I had never imagined.

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Photo credit: Kathy McGee

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on Redemption

Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners sentence to life without parole for crimes they committed as teens would be given the chance to argue for their release from prison. This decision will have a huge impact on Pennsylvania, as there are currently 400 juvenile lifers serving sentences here. To be honest, this decision would have had little impact on my life a year ago. If someone had told me about this decision, I would have said “that’s interesting!” and moved on. But last semester, I took a course titled “Crime, Justice, & the Media” and now this decision means more than I could ever have imagined.

I decided to sign-up for this special topics Communications course because the title sounded cool, and because one of my favorite professors was teaching the class. I’m passionate about justice, and I love media..that much I knew. What I didn’t know was that this course would basically be split into two parts: studying the underlying theories and beliefs about crime and the media, and working through The Redemption Project. The Redemption Project was started collaboratively by my professor, Mike Lyons, and three juvenile lifers: John Pace, Kempis Songster, and Aaron Phillips. It’s mission is to document and share stories about the lives of juvenile lifers and to increase public awareness about mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

Taking in all of this information on the first day of class was a lot to handle, but I couldn’t have been more excited. I am passionate about social justice and learning about issues that are new to me. I had never learned exclusively about JLWOP, so I was ready for the experience.

I didn’t know what to expect on my first visit to S.C.I. Graterford. I knew that we would be able to meet some of the men that The Redemption Project was working with, but I wasn’t sure how this meeting would go. I was anxious to dive into conversation with these men, but I worried that I wouldn’t know where to start or how to begin. After a nerve-racking experience signing in and going through security, I was suddenly walking by myself into the visiting room of a maximum-security prison. After a brief “how did I get here?” moment, I was greeted by John Pace. John couldn’t have been more excited to greet me. With a huge smile on his face, he politely asked me how I was doing and led me over to where the rest of the group was meeting. I was introduced to Kempis “Ghani” Songster and about seven other men who were serving life sentences for crimes they committed as teens.

What happened next would become one of the most thoughtful, insightful, and moving conversations that I’ve ever engaged in. For the next few hours, we each took a turn introducing ourselves to each other: our names, hobbies, career goals, hopes, and dreams. We dove into discussing the work of the project and the public’s awareness regarding juvenile life without parole. I was so impressed with the ease and eloquence with which these men spoke, and their incredibly optimistic outlook on life. Many of the men had pursued education while incarcerated and received their GEDs and for some of them, Bachelor’s degrees. They were involved in peer-mentoring programs. One man passionately described his love for his work – he helps out with a program that provides young students with school supplies.

On the way back from this first visit to Graterford, we were silent. In the coming weeks we would have much to say and to ask about our experience, these men and women, the justice system, and what “redemption” truly means…but in that moment, there were no words. For me..maybe it was a “change of heart” or maybe it was a better understanding of what it means to be human and the human spirit. But I knew that I wanted to learn more about all sides of this issue and continue the “good fight” as Ghani calls it, for these men and women.

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I will continue to blog about this experience throughout the semester.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tù eres mi otro yo

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My sophomore year of college, I was undoubtedly experiencing what can only be referred to as a funk. I was funky. The excitement of freshmen year, new friends and classes had passed and I was struggling to find meaning in many of my classes and activities. I was involved in service activities on campus, but I felt myself needing more – wanting to learn more.

I had gone on an immersion trip to the Appalachian region my freshmen year (through a popular program here at SJU called the Appalachian Experience), and my eyes were opened to the poverty and injustices that exist in our very own country. At the same time, I was genuinely amazed by the joy that the people of Clinchco, Virginia exuded out into the world each and every day. The people that I met on this trip didn’t find their happiness in material objects. They found joy in each other…their land…good, fresh food..a sun rising over the Appalachian mountains on a chilly morning.

I knew that I needed more experiences like this; experiences that shattered my heart into a million tiny pieces and put it back together with joy and love.

On a whim, I decided to sign up for a trip to El Paso over winter break. I would be staying in a Lutheran Church on the Mexican-American border and immersing myself in the lives of undocumented immigrants. I had been hearing so much in the news about immigration, and at the time I was (emphasis on was) a Spanish minor, so I thought this trip would be a cool experience for me.

I had no idea what I was about to experience.

When I think back to this week in EP, I always remember the first moment that the Texas sun hit me. I was walking out of the airport and into the van of the Border Servant Corps member who was picking up my group, Gretchen, and I was hit by the brightest sun I had ever experienced in my life. I didn’t know it yet, but this moment would become symbolic of the incredible light that shined through each and every person I encountered throughout my week in EP.

The agenda of our week was packed. Each and every minute was planned out. We volunteered at a local food pantry, worked at an after-school program, visited an asylum seeker’s shelter, toured a detention center, went sand-sledding, attended mass, met with local immigration lawyer’s and nonprofit organizations, and shared meals with various community members.

Getting to hear the stories of undocumented immigrants was an incredibly moving and life-changing experience. We are constantly hearing about immigration in the news – facts, figures, policies, procedures, etc. I think sometimes it’s forgotten that there are actual human beings behind these stats – living, breathing people with incredibly moving stories to share.

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For me, the most touching moment of our trip occurred on one of our last days in EP. We received permission to have a small prayer service at the border. Men and women from the other side of the border, living and working in Juarez, Mexico, were able to meet us and chat with us through the fence. We formed a circle with these men and women, and I was able to slip my finger through the fence and around the hand of one of the men on the other side, so that our circle would not be broken. I will never forget this moment – I replay it in my head every day. I learned something that day, not only about the human spirit but about the bond we share with each other, no matter where we come from or where we are born.

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While working in the after-school program at the Church we were staying at, we learned about a poem from the children. The poem is by Luiz Valdes, and is based on the Mayan greeting “In Lak’ech,” which translates to “I am another yourself.” They told us that they recite this poem each day, before they begin their time at the program:

In Lak’ech

Tú eres mi otro yo (You are my other me.

Si te hago daño a ti (If I do harm to you)

Me hago daño a mi mismo (I do harm to myself)

Si te amo y respeto (If I love and respect you)

Me amo y respeto yo (I love and respect myself)

The people that I encountered in El Paso are a part of me. They are another me. I hold a piece of them with me everywhere that I go.