By Lisa Beckelhimer
Most students spend a lot of time in classrooms but still end up with plenty of free time to do their own thing. Some work part-time jobs. Some sit in the library. Some simply play for the rest of the day. But a select group of students spends time outside of the classroom in nursing homes, orphanages and hospitals. Or in shelters for the homeless, battered women or runaways. Or at soup kitchens, food banks or housing agencies. Or prisons.
In 1989, the University established a program to attract academically gifted students with a track record of service to their community, school or church. Known as the Service Fellowship Program, the organization sends students into the region’s hard-crusted front lines to lend a hand wherever they can, exemplifying the University’s mission of service to others. Twenty service fellows are chosen—five from each academic class. Each one is charged with performing 10 hours of service per week. In return, they receive full tuition, room, board and books. That’s more students on full-tuition scholarship than any other group in the University—including the men’s basketball team. At nearly $25,000 per year for each fellow, that’s about a half million dollars in income the University is handing out so they can go help others.
“I do think it’s an effort on the University’s part to put money behind its ideals,” says Tom Kennealy, S.J., associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences and chair of the scholarship committee. “If we’re committed to service to others, this program bears witness to our commitment in a concrete way.”
“It’s not only the financial commitment, but the expansion of service into the student community,” says Adrian Schiess, director for retention services and mentor in the early years. “The idea was that it would rub off on other students, and they would take on projects that would transcend just going to the soup kitchen but do some things that would be lasting.”
Most perform more than expected, says Gene Carmichael, S.J., associate vice president for mission and ministry and mentor to the fellows. And they carry that performance with them after they leave, giving—and receiving—for the remainder of their lives.
“We don't want service to be top-down,” says Carmichael. “You have a graced moment to share some time with a person. You share your gifts with people and they share gifts with you so they don’t wind up feeling like they’re just receiving.”
Ask any of the service fellows, and they’ll tell you that they are impacted as profoundly—perhaps even more so—than the people they serve.
“My fellowship empowered me with a very strong sense of advocacy,” says Nick DeBlasio, a 1997 graduate and resident at Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati. “It gave me a sense that no situation is truly hopeless and that one person can make a difference.”
Others feel the same way. From the first graduates to recent graduates, serving others remains their charge.
Lea Minniti, Class of 2002, coordinator, Su Casa Hispanic Ministry Center
As a recent graduate, Lea Minniti still isn’t completely sure what life will bring for her. But with a major in theology, minors in Spanish and peace studies, and experience with an Hispanic assistance agency, she knows her mission will include working on behalf of others.
“I want to do some kind of justice work,” says Minniti. “I could see myself working in a similar capacity as what I’m doing now.”
Minniti is on an assignment at the Su Casa Hispanic Ministry Center, an organization that helps young adults strengthen their communities by working with neighborhoods, businesses and government.
Her plans are to attend graduate school after her assignment is complete and study in Guatemala, Spain, Peru or Mexico.
Minniti worked with Su Casa during her service fellowship and spent a service-learning semester in Nicaragua. Now she runs a youth group for Hispanics 18 to 25 years old and helps coordinate medical appointments for Spanish-speaking residents.
“The emphasis in the service fellowship was on relationships,” she says. “It wasn’t just going down to a neighborhood and coming back home. We got to know people. That’s how I try to live my life now.”
Mandy Adamczyk, Class of 1997, teacher, June Shelton Upper School, Dallas
The service fellowship changed everything for Mandy Adamczyk Dockweiler.
“It was such a huge part of my life, I can’t imagine my life without it,” she says. “I don’t know what I’d be. I know I wouldn’t have my current job. I would have taken sign language for fun, but it wouldn't have turned into a career.”
Dockweiler teaches art at a Dallas high school for students who have learning differences such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. She also teaches sign language and coordinates the school’s community service program. A supervisor during her service fellowship told her she’d make a good teacher. “I honestly hadn’t thought of it,” she says.
Growing up, Dockweiler often used signs to communicate with her younger brother, who is developmentally delayed. But a year of service at Cincinnati’s St. Rita School for the Deaf convinced her to formally study sign language. Now, in addition to teaching, she interprets religious education classes and youth meetings for hearing-impaired students at her church.
The school counts on Dockweiler to share her enthusiasm for service. Students there must perform five hours of service per semester.
“The service fellowship was such a gift to me that I have a responsibility to share that experience with other people,” says Dockweiler. “If I volunteer 10 hours, that’s a good thing—if I get 80 kids to give 10 hours, that’s even better.”
Joel Tantalo, Class of 1996, lawyer, Dunn & Krutcher, Los Angeles
Joel Tantalo believes anyone can serve others, regardless of career choice. “I read an article about a September 11 widow with five daughters. It said she hadn’t hired a lawyer to help her because she didn’t want him to take 30 percent of what she got. That cut me,” says Tantalo. “I know what the perception is about lawyers. But I also know that there are many lawyers who care deeply about people and want to make society better.”
During his junior year, Tantalo was a court-appointed special advocate at Prokids Inc., an advocacy organization that represents children in court cases. He visited abused and neglected children, worked with foster families and social workers and represented children in court.
“I came from a small town outside of Rochester, N.Y., and grew up in Catholic schools in a middle-class neighborhood,” he says. “Prokids was by far the most eye-opening experience I’ve ever had. I couldn’t believe the things parents do to their kids.”
Tantalo still helps those in need. He and a partner worked pro bono to help make housing conditions better in Los Angeles. Thanks in part to their legal brief, L.A. landlords must pay a fee that funds housing inspections on behalf of tenants. “It’s important to use the gifts God gave you,” he says, “not only to profit personally but to benefit other people too.”