Growing up, pushing out: As it turns 25, the Center for Social Concerns pioneers new horizons

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

It’s hard to think of an institution closer to the core of Notre Dame’s collective consciousness than the Center for Social Concerns, unless it involves a gridiron and a pigskin or has a last name like Hesburgh. Considering that Father Hesburgh, CSC, has had more than seven decades to make an impression at Notre Dame and the football program even longer, that says a lot.

As it turns 25, the Center for Social Concerns (CSC) is a size 12 foot in a size 6 shoe, which is not just a reference to its comically cramped quarters in the old WNDU building. The center is overflowing with world-changing ideas and programs. It’s teeming with students who tell inspiring stories about lives in transformation. Those present at its creation will be glad to know it is still a leading coordinator of volunteer work in South Bend, and its emphasis on community service, experiential learning and theological reflection are stronger than ever.

Still, the CSC has changed. Its academic programs aren’t just about theology any more. Its commitments to research and the social teachings of the Catholic Church place it both at the vanguard of the national service-learning movement and at the heart of Notre Dame’s aspirations to be a place where intellectual contributions are suffused with Christian virtue.

Some measures of its impact are familiar: 80 percent of all Notre Dame students perform some kind of volunteer service, while another 10 percent volunteer or work for a service organization during their first year out of college. Another number—225,500—may be better, if only because it’s fresher. That, according to a 2003 center report, is how many hours of community service students perform each year through the CSC and its programs.

The center doesn’t take credit for all of that, but it’s a safe bet those numbers wouldn’t be so high had Rev. Don McNeill, CSC, ’58 not founded it out of the merger of the old Office of Volunteer Services and Center for Experiential Learning.

Looking back, McNeill says he worried service learning at Notre Dame might lose its soul if it got too big and had its own building. Yet as it prepares for its 25th birthday in January, the CSC is undoubtedly big and successful without any evidence to suggest it has lost its way. Notre Dame was one of only five universities (Brown, Duke, Penn and Stanford were the others) in the 2007 U.S. News & World Report top 20 noted for the quality of its service learning programs, one of the academic benchmarks which that magazine considers conducive to student success.

The center’s one-credit immersion seminars, which require weeks of preparatory course work before sending students to such places as the migrant fields of Florida and California, and the social service agencies of New York City, receive record numbers of applicants every semester. Those turned away are encouraged to go to the Appalachia seminar or the 48-hour Urban Plunge, which are the most established and have the most placements. This year the Summer Service Learning Program, another flagship initiative, has placed 235 students at work sites across the United States, an all-time high with 28 more students than in 2006.

When the CSC joins the other centers and programs that make up the Institute for Church Life in Geddes Hall, a 64,000-square-foot facility scheduled to open in autumn 2009, it won’t come a day too soon. Staff offices have taken over the old projector and mail rooms. Student organizations hold meetings in hallways.

These are good problems to have. After a quarter century, the center’s current director, Rev. Bill Lies, CSC, ’93M.Div., says the greater challenge may be a matter of helping people understand what the center is.

McNeill’s successor is a gentle man with a forceful presence, the kind who habitually makes a serious point with a sense of humor. “I sometimes feel like people pat me on the head and say, ‘Oh, you do such a nice job over at the volunteer center.’ The truth is that 85 to 90 percent of our time really is around our course work and enhancing student learning and even faculty teaching.

“I feel like the Center for Social Concerns is sort of the crucible where faith, the pursuit of knowledge and experience all come together at Notre Dame. We essentially push the walls of the classroom right out into the social issues that we would have our students looking at. That’s the idea.”

Transforming lives


In many ways, Anne-Marie Rick ’07 embodies the classic CSC experience of service, learning and self-discovery. “It wasn’t until I started going on the seminars that I started . . . to get an understanding of what it means to be poor,” the biology major says. Rick’s education through the center began in Appalachia and developed through one of the center’s famous Urban Plunges in Philadelphia. “Quick trips,” she observes, “but they’re really good at bringing up all the issues. It’s easy to leave those and go back to your normal life, but I think you take some of it with you.”

In Rick’s case, the domestic experiences prepared her for what she found while studying in China through a traditional study abroad program. On trips outside Shanghai, she witnessed a rural population suffering with HIV/AIDS on a scale far greater than anything reported by the government. Suddenly, her childhood dreams of becoming a veterinarian collided with a new sense of vocation to practice human medicine.

That tension resolved itself during the summer before her senior year when, through the CSC’s International Summer Service Learning Program, she worked alongside the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, in the women’s ward of the first home Mother Teresa set up for the sick and the dying. In the mornings Rick served meals, washed dishes and provided wound care and comfort to the women. After lunch she taught English, math and reading in an orphanage.

She saw sickness and death. She also saw hope. “In one case in particular, we saw the power of prayer,” she remembers. “One day we thought [a woman] was going to die, and the next day the infection she’d had was completely gone.”

Within a week of leaving Calcutta, Rick was back at Notre Dame for Resident Assistant orientation, preparing for students and decorating their doors. It was tough dealing with her wrenching service experiences and finding an outlet for her desire to help, she recalls. But she found one. “I led the [second] World AIDS day campaign on campus, which the CSC sponsored.”

After graduation, the recipient of the Tom Dooley Service Award is volunteering at the Sister Maura Brannick Health Center in South Bend while she applies to medical schools. The clinic pools physicians’ volunteer hours and provides health care for local uninsured patients.

Rick says the CSC guided her through a difficult vocational decision. She hopes it makes her a better doctor than she might otherwise be in a career that may one day take her into public health policy.

Adding research

A pair of course titles offers a sense of how the Center for Social Concenrs has evolved over the years. In 1971, McNeill offered a new course: Theology and Community Service. His aim was to introduce students to human vulnerability in poor neighborhoods and nursing homes and schools for the disabled, and to get them to reflect on their sense of responsibility. His prayer was that they might grow closer to God and commit their lives to making a difference. Out of that class grew the core of the center’s teaching method and a few decades worth of formative experiences for undergraduates.

Thirty years later, another innovative course appeared in the undergraduate directory. Chemistry in the Service of the Community emerged from conversations between chemistry professor Dennis Jacobs and Mary Beckman ’75, ’84M.A., ’86Ph.D., then the CSC’s new associate director for academic affairs and research. The class sent chemistry students into older South Bend homes to test for lead.

Jacobs and his students worked with the nascent Lead Alliance, a coalition of city and county government offices, Memorial Hospital, Notre Dame’s Robinson Community Learning Center and Greentree Environmental, an environmental assessment company. The students collected paint chips, dust and soil and analyzed them in labs at Notre Dame. They compared their results with professional tests conducted by Greentree staff and shared with the families their findings and low-cost remediation strategies.

How effective were these strategies?

That question took Jacobs to Jody Nicholson, a graduate student in the psychology department, and ultimately to the CSC’s Ganey minigrant Nicholson obtained in 2006 to investigate the role families play in solving potential lead problems. Lead is especially dangerous to young children, whose developing systems are likelier to absorb it. One in nine Indiana children tested shows high blood lead levels. Above a certain threshold (10 micrograms per deciliter), public agencies intervene. But coalition members knew that many children were testing just below that level, requiring action in the home.

Nicholson came to Notre Dame to study under John Borkowski, a co-director of the University’s Center for Children and Families (CCF) and pioneer of community-based research who specializes in parenting practices and the prevention of abuse and neglect. She was assisting a CCF study of how fathers perceive their parenting roles when the lead project came to their door.

Over time, her work with Jacobs’ class led to a rigorous study of how parents implemented suggestions for cleaning the lead out of their homes and reducing their children’s risk of exposure. She began recruiting psychology undergraduates who could help her develop the study and learn advanced research methods in the process. Katie Baron ’07 and Christine Janesheski ’07 spent the summer of 2006 working on every aspect of the research and administrative process. They assembled the housecleaning kits some of the families received through the study and, eventually, conducted parent interviews. Baron created data templates, and Janesheski translated informational literature and interview scripts into Spanish.

More important, Nicholson says, they met with frustration and disappointment, which forced them to think about the realities framing the families’ lives every day. Janesheski, a South Bend area native, says it was the first time she’d visited some of the neighborhoods. The home visits reminded her of the Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day’s accounts of living in solidarity with poor families in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, a book assigned for a theology class Janesheski took while her work on the lead project continued into the school year.

Baron learned about the project while she was attending the CSC’s Children in Poverty spring seminar in New York City. She says her interaction with the families was invaluable in guiding her career path toward clinical counseling. “No matter how much you learn in the classroom, until you go out there and see it, it’s hard to achieve a deeper understanding of your subject and of yourself and what you’re called to do,” Baron says. After graduating in May, she began working at the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls in Chicago, a Catholic outreach to children from troubled homes.

Beckman, the CSC associate director, has worked with faculty and students across the colleges to develop similar community-based projects. She says her image of the typical CSC student “is one who not only has a sense of social commitment but is capable of bringing the disciplinary content of her major to social problems she wants to address.”

This year’s Ganey award and mini-grants spotlighted the breadth of the center’s interdisciplinary reach. The awards are named for local philanthropist Rod Ganey, who wanted to stir up the University’s mighty research capacity to aid the South Bend area. Faculty and students representing biology, philosophy, economics, sociology, psychology, civil engineering and law received seed grants for research exploring environmental health issues, the local economic impact of undocumented immigrants, obesity, groundwater quality and home foreclosures.

It all seems a long way from the two-day Urban Plunge, but Beckman says the CSC’s story is emphatically one of continuity rather than change.

“I was McNeillized, and that has influenced my entire professional life,” says Beckman, who describes herself as “one of the original Urban Plungers.” She left a tenured position on the economics faculty at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania for the opportunity to shape the center’s academic programs.

Making sense of it all

Nicholson’s “Get the Lead Out” research is an undeniably laudable service to the community. But can one seriously say it’s connected to Notre Dame’s Catholic mission?

“It’s right in line with Catholic social teaching,” says Father Lies, the center’s director.

“We talk about solidarity. We talk about the common good. We talk about the option for the poor. All these things are bearing out in this project. And in fact it’s more than just a local project,” he explains. “The fruits of this could be spectacular.”

While Church teaching has always informed CSC activities, Lies perceived a need for its clearer articulation. Two years ago, he created a position that would systematically infuse the center’s curricula with the Church’s vast heritage of social thought and action—from Aquinas and Augustine, Saint Vincent de Paul and the Catholic Worker, to papal encyclicals and pastoral letters from the bishops. The position would support the interdisciplinary Catholic Social Tradition (CST) minor created in the theology department by former CSC associate director Kathleen Maas Weigert, who left Notre Dame to create a service learning institute at Georgetown. It would also connect the CSC with the work of Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services, the domestic and international relief agencies of the U.S. Church.

Lies hired Bill Purcell ’86, ’92M.Div., whose career path had taken him through the U.S. bishops’ conference and the archdioceses of Washington and Chicago before leading him back to Notre Dame. Purcell’s work had an immediate impact. Last year, CSC courses, seminars, workshops and lectures focused on “Economic Justice for All,” the U.S. bishops’ 1986 letter. Starting this fall, students will grapple with the concept of solidarity. Purcell views research, course work and community service as strategies the CSC pursues in its social justice mission, and the Catholic social tradition as a pervasive framework.

“Some kids may come to it with faith, and that’s why they want to do service and justice,” he says, “and others want to do service and justice, and because they’re doing it and they’re learning about Catholic social teaching, they start to think about the faith questions.”

It’s not hard to find students who illustrate Purcell’s point.

Julian Bigi ’07 is a biochemistry and peace studies student who took his Get the Lead Out project work a step further by investigating the role of South Bend manufacturers in the high blood lead levels of area children. Bigi considers himself religiously undecided. The son of a Notre Dame professor, he grew up around the University but says in high school he was more interested in his skateboard and guitar than in social questions. Things changed once he arrived on campus, and he believes the center built a bridge between his interests in science and social justice.

Friends he met through Peace Fellowship, a student organization connected to the CSC, impressed him with how their faith motivated their commitment. Then he took Jacobs’ chemistry class, and its discussion of Church teaching caused him to think “more about the faith side of things and how that informs people’s opinions on social justice issues.”

“These kids are smart,” Purcell says. “They want to have a good conversation. . . . They don’t want to be preached to. They don’t want just religiosity. They do want deep spirituality and theological understanding. They want social analysis. Those are things I think we provide.”

Theology professor Todd David Whitmore works closely with Purcell as the director of the burgeoning Catholic Social Tradition minor program, to which students can apply credits they earn on CSC seminars. The program accepted 27 new students this year with several more in the declaration process. For a minor accustomed to a “handful” of students, that’s tremendous, but Whitmore isn’t surprised by its appeal or by the successes of the CSC.

“The Center for Social Concerns is the heartbeat of this University,” he says. “I only wish their budget were commensurate with their impact.”

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.