As it has with many aspects of life worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way Creighton University students are engaging with service.
Due to health concerns and the campus closure, students are no longer volunteering on-site with local community partners through Creighton’s Schlegel Center for Service and Justice or through the University’s Office of Academic Service-Learning.
Still, service leaders at the University are looking for alternative ways to serve community partners, and students are using the extra time to reflect on the broader systemic problems that the pandemic is revealing.
“The fundamental challenge that I see is that, while COVID-19 has made it even more clear that we’re all connected, that we need one another, that we’re only as strong as the most vulnerable in our community, at the same time, the best thing for most of us to do is to physically distance,” says Ken Reed-Bouley, MBA’10, director of the SCSJ.
On its website, the SCSJ offers tips for how to engage with community partners, such as Omaha’s Siena Francis House, Food Bank for the Heartland and Heartland Hope Mission and others, during the pandemic. These include donating money and supplies, writing letters to low-income elderly people who are unable to receive visitors, and connecting with partners that are in need of limited in-person volunteers, while following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health departments.
Creighton’s Office of Academic Service-Learning, which works to incorporate service into academic coursework, is also highlighting the importance of indirect service in light of the pandemic. The office has placed on its website several recommendations for faculty on how to work alternative forms of community engagement into classwork.
Though unable to work on-site, some students are engaged in project-based service, helping local partners by conducting research, designing murals or advocating for solutions to systemic issues such as food insecurity and climate change, says Dan Walsh, BA’09, senior program administrator for the office.
“Service-learning is, at its heart, also promoting this idea of civic learning in our Jesuit, Catholic context, learning about Ignatian values related to justice,” Walsh says. “How do we get students to critically reflect more on the systemic forces behind what they’re learning in class?”
At the SCSJ, several of the center’s weekly service coordinators have made efforts to connect via Zoom to engage in social analysis, says Becca Huju, BA’11, program manager for local community engagement and student formation. The concept of social analysis, informed by Catholic Social Teaching, involves discussing and questioning different social structures in order to get a more complete picture of societal problems.
In one recent meeting, Huju says, the coordinators discussed how the pandemic is disproportionally affecting the lives of people on the margins, particularly immigrants, refugees and people experiencing homelessness.
“There’s a lot to be said for donating to the local shelter or even physically volunteering. But you can’t just do that. You have to look at the structural issues,” Huju says.
Reed-Bouley agrees. “The pandemic can be thought of as a natural disaster. But that’s only part of the story. The other part is how we’ve set up our society — natural disasters exacerbate structural inequalities making it even more difficult for the people who are already most vulnerable,” he says. “As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said in 1986 in their pastoral letter on the economy, society should be judged by how the least among us is faring.”
This story was in a Creighton News release for April 20, 2020.