St. Jerome's program takes students beyond borders

By  Robert White, Catholic Register Special
  • January 30, 2008

WATERLOO, Ont. - An educational program at St. Jerome’s University transports students beyond educational, personal and emotional borders, combining the classroom with service to others.

Beyond Borders began during the 2005/06 school year as a way of helping students put their education into practice by travelling to and working abroad. The program, which runs for three terms, comprises three academic courses, fund-raising and a home stay and work placement co-ordinated through one of Beyond Borders’ international network of partners.

“The focus is on social justice education,” said Scott Kline, an assistant professor of Religious Studies at St. Jerome’s and the director of the Beyond Borders program.

The program, as described on its web site, goes to the heart of the university’s commitment to learning; the Gospel values of love, truth and justice; and the formation of leaders for service in the community and the church.

St. Jerome’s President David Perrin, OMI, sees a significant benefit in the program — significant enough to “invest heavily” in Beyond Borders.

“It exposes students to multiple perspectives and opens one’s worldview to other possibilities,” Perrin said. “There’s a dialogue and communication that doesn’t happen in the classroom. It only happens with encounters with other human beings.”

Describing the experience as a transformational way to build global community, Perrin added, “You can’t put a price on that type of transformation.”

Meagan Lassaline, who worked in a program supporting parents and children with physical and developmental disabilities in Lviv, Ukraine, in 2006, described her transformation in Crossroads, the fall 2007 Beyond Borders’ newsletter:

“Through stories shared, I began to learn, far more than any book can ever teach, of the horrific past which has left permanent scars on the country,” she wrote. “While living with some of Ukraine’s physically and mentally challenged people, I experienced some of the pain of rejection and what it means to be on the fringes of society.

“In the end, not only did I witness the beauty of the Ukraine resilience, but it became part of me.”

The selection process begins with applications submitted by third- and fourth-year SJU and University of Waterloo students in late February followed by an interview in early March. Past applicants have come from a broad range of disciplines: engineering, kinesiology, history and religious studies.

Through Beyond Borders they have the chance to “harness their skills and abilities for the cause of social justice,” Kline said. “We’re looking for students open to radical otherness.”

One of the program’s key teaching moments takes place when participants learn where and what they’ll be doing. Beyond Borders works with Intercordia Canada (founded by Jean Vanier), World University Services Canada and other established non-governmental organizations to come up with placements.

“They have all kinds of expectations about the kind of work they want to do,” said Kline. “The teaching moment is getting them to understand the work is more important than where they’re going.”

Students — 12 in Beyond Borders’ first year, 16 in the second and 20 in the third — have travelled to Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Belize, Vietnam, Malaysia and Botswana. They’ve worked in women’s shelters, with HIV/AIDS education and literacy programs, with underprivileged youth and in an orphanage. This year the program, which Kline eventually hopes will include 50 to 60 participants, will expand to include placements in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and a number of countries in Africa.

Kline said the Beyond Borders’ participants are taught that their involvement won’t change the world.

“But we tell them ‘you’ll be changed,’ that we do make a difference. And that’s what Catholic education is all about: relationships, social transformation and an ongoing process in communities,” he added.

For more information about Beyond Borders, go to the web site www.sju.ca/beyondborders.html.

(White is a freelance writer based in Guelph, Ont.)

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