By Professor Irene Hodgson
“The real measure of our Jesuit universities,” says Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Father General of the Jesuits, “lies in who our students become.” And it is not just what happens in class that determines that. I encourage all students to take advantage of oppor- tunities for service learning and studying abroad. They are a wonderful way to learn about social problems, about other people and cultures and, at the same time, about yourself and your own country. They will give you new perspectives on the field you are studying, and on your career and life goals.
I was privileged in 1999 and also in 2000 to accompany students to Nicaragua for the service-learning semester, and to El Salvador with the students for peace program. In Nicaragua, the integration of the experience of living with families in a working-class neighborhood, doing service work and taking rigorous courses with speakers on theology, political science, economics and Spanish, is unlike anything that can be achieved in the classroom. Father Kolvenbach, quoting Pope John Paul II, says, “When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change.”
My first trip to Central America was in 1990, shortly after the Sandinistas had been voted out in Nicaragua and while the civil war was still going on in El Salvador. I visited the Jesuit university in Nicaragua and learned how the Jesuits in Central America believed that to prepare “men and women for others,” ready to impact their society, the national reality must be the subject of every class, whatever the field. I also visited the Jesuit university in El Salvador. It is where a U.S.-trained battalion had murdered six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her teen-age daughter a few months earlier. We were told how the murdered rector, Ignacio Ellacuría, believed in a “prophetic role” for the university—to lead society, including its corporations. Ellacuría was murdered partly because he called, loudly, for respect for human rights and a negotiated end to the conflict. This first experience in Central America caused me to redefine my teaching mission. I was already talking about Latin America and Latinos and social justice issues, but I was not engaging the reality of U.S. actions as the Central American Jesuits had challenged me to do. I since have assumed the responsibility to examine the U.S. role in Latin America, not just in history and political science, but also in literature, music and popular culture. When I began to see that what I was learning about events in Latin America was not congruent with everything I had been taught about how this country promotes democracy, I expressed my concerns to a friend from Latin America. He told me to read and learn as much as I could before speaking out. I read and listened and learned, and when I reached a critical mass of information and knew what I believed, and why, then I started speaking both from the heart and the head. I challenge all of you to do that as well. Learn as much as you can, then speak out, and act, with compassion.
This is an abridged version of a speech given by Professor Irene Hodgson, who was named teacher of the year by students. The full text can be found here.