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Our Casa Alums
Alum of the Week
Tom and Liz McDermott Hare
We had the great fortune of meeting each other at a Casa alum gathering at SLU. Sharing the profound impact our own experiences in El Salvador had on each of us helped us form a strong, lasting bond. We both agree that our time at the Casa helped us decide to pursue the careers we have and deeply impacted who we are as individuals, as a couple, and as parents. The unspoken challenge from the Salvadorans to engage others with humility continues to affect the way we live our lives on a daily basis.
The Casa program offers college students an opportunity to experience the rawness and fullness of life at levels some people never experience in their entire lives. The program gives students the gift of learning to truly live in the present – something that if mastered early will deeply impact every day of a person’s future. We frequently look back on our time at the Casa to remind us what is truly important in life - in the words of Dean Brackley, “that is life itself and love”. Few other college experiences not only offer these lessons, but also make it virtually impossible to leave without truly understanding their meaning. We recommend the Casa to anyone with the desire to simply experience life.
After graduating from SLU, we returned to El Salvador, this time together. We worked in several communities establishing programs or supporting existing efforts to improve nutrition in school-aged youth and access to computer technology in schools. The non-profit we established, Connect Education International, continues to serve the children in La Javilla and San Ramon under the exclusive leadership of Salvadoran community members.
Driven by the desire to understand the structures and policies at work in the communities we came to know in El Salvador, we pursued our master’s degrees in Development Management and Policy at Georgetown University and Universidad Nacional San Martín in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to travel throughout South America – whether it was by rowboat on Lake Titicaca or with the Organization of American States observing elections in Colombia. Throughout the entire experience we drew on our Casa experience to engage with communities where possible and to listen to the stories of those we met along the way.
After completing our studies, we moved to Washington, D.C. where Liz worked on foreign policy issues in the U.S. Senate and Tom managed legal reform programs in Latin America for the American Bar Association. We experienced firsthand the way issues such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, social violence in Mexico and Central America, and post-war development in Afghanistan are discussed and addressed by governments. In these instances we were able to draw on our experiences in El Salvador to better understand and advise decision makers on issues that had real consequences for people in communities like those we had come to know.
We are now in St. Louis, MO where Liz is the Director of Programs for the World Soy Foundation and also manages the American Soybean Association’s nutrition and market development programs in Latin America. Tom recently completed his Ph.D. in Public Policy Analysis. He is an adjunct professor at SLU and consults for community and international development clients. We continue to be challenged and humbled by our Casa experience, whether through engagement to improve nutrition in communities in Central America, or by studying the impact and solutions to violence in communities throughout the hemisphere.
Overall, the Casa experience continues to give us life and helps to bring greater meaning to our relationship, parenthood, and our work. We hope our two children, Grace and Patrick, are able to experience something like the Casa one day.
Joyana Jacoby Dvorak
Service Immersion Coordinator at DePaul University
At Marquette I studied Sociology and Theology. I naively was hoping to understand the systems of our society through Sociology and then apply Theology to fix them. For years I had been learning about poverty and injustice from textbooks. I was tired of reading about it. I was ready to awaken to the world and the cries for justice, to breathe it, taste it, see it, smell it, live it fully.
Casa de la Solidaridad was an opportunity to dive in, to entregarse. Concepts soon had names, faces, and stories of people who welcomed me with radical hospitality. In El Salvador, I learned to listen exquisitely to another way of being. I was knocked off my pedestal as I witnessed grassroots organizing, the power of community, and a faith in action that continues to motivate me.
At the heart, I learned to let those among us living in poverty lead my next steps. After college I spent a few years in Leon, Guanajuato Mexico with the Good Shepherd Volunteers. I humbly walked with girls in a boarding school who taught me the importance of peacemaking. I accompanied women in a sewing cooperative and learned what it means to be a woman, mother, sister, friend in our world. I came back from Mexico with a mission to “luchar por y con ustedes desde el otro lado” – to fight for and with those I loved from the other side. I moved to Chicago and advocated with the Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform at the Chicago Archdiocese Peace and Justice Office.
Now, over 10 years later, I am still connected to the Salvadoran community as the Coordinator of the DePaul Service Immersion Program. I have the privilege to accompany students to El Salvador, Colombia, and many domestic places as their hearts are broken open for the first time and as they discover their own brokenness.
Central to my work is continuing to build long-term relationships with the partners who invite us to their reality for a short time. I completed my Masters in Non-Profit Management at DePaul and used this research opportunity to invite the partners’ voices to the table. As an adjunct faculty in the Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies program at DePaul I dive deeper with students into understandings of social justice and our responsibility to build the kingdom of God together.
Through the life shaping experience in El Salvador I came face to face with a reality that continues to shape my vocation. My husband knows that my first true love was El Salvador and our brothers and sisters living in poverty. Now as we begin our journey as parents, I pray our son Theodore will be as blessed as I am to have a root system of friends working together to build another world that we believe is possible! By joining the Casa program you will be invited to this friendship and invited to belong to a family who will walk with you every step of your journey.
Technical Recruiter at Facebook
Studying at the Casa affected me in many ways, all of which were positive and helped me become a better person. The Casa pushed me outside my comfort zone, which gave me confidence to do keep doing so long after I left San Salvador; it made me think critically about the world around me in a way that was different from classroom learning; and most importantly, it instilled a sense of empathy that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else.
As your average suburbanite from Ohio, I went to Boston College to live in a big city and get out of the Midwest. I studied history and international studies at BC, and during my sophomore year I went to Haiti on a service trip. This trip was the culmination of months of preparation, and in hindsight it played a major role in my decision to study at the Casa. The trip to Haiti was so short, which made me really want to be immerse myself in the culture and country I would study abroad in…and the Casa presented the best opportunity to do that. After studying at the Casa and graduating from BC, I worked as an immigration paralegal and decided to pursue international relations in graduate school. I got a master’s degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and moved to NYC to follow my then girlfriend, now wife.
Moving to NYC in 2010 was a humbling experience, as the job market was tough. However, I was lucky enough to get a contract role with Google on their recruiting team. It was my first experience in the private sector, and it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be…in fact, it was the opposite of bad. I now work at Facebook in NYC, staffing their engineering teams and building out our East Coast hub. My life in NYC and work that I’m doing is very different from my praxis site in San Ramon and life in El Salvador, but each have been fulfilling in different ways.
I would recommend the Casa for many reasons: the academic rigor, the praxis work, the immersion in local communities, and the lifelong friendships that come out of your time in El Salvador. But to me, the best reason to study at the Casa is the way it teaches you to empathize with others and to move outside your comfort zone.
Deputy Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of Commerce
This fall, it will have been 12 years since I participated in the Casa de la Solidaridad. And from when I stepped out of El Salvador to today, through the adventure I have called my life since, I don’t think I can say there has not been a day that I have not felt how El Salvador changed me and gave me a perspective on life that has shaped me forever.
The semester I left El Salvador, I studied abroad in Mexico City at one of the wealthiest universities in the country. At the moment, it was hard to swallow - going from living in solidarity the poor to classes with the wealthiest in Mexico - but looking back, what it did afford me was a real life experience of the wealth and inequality in Latin America. I had truly lived at both ends of the spectrum. That was my organizing moment – what helped me to decide that it was up to me to help “be the change.” Perspective.
After having spent 4 years studying international studies at BC, semesters in El Salvador and Mexico City and trips to Nicaragua I was certain I was going to go into working in international affairs focused on Latin America. Then when I left Boston College, I found my calling....I realized that as a Latina in the United States, an identity I hadn't truly discovered until I went to Boston College and lived in Latin America, I had something to contribute to our country and our community though the political system and that was a way for me to continue to serve our community. The Latino community was a sleeping giant and realized I wanted to work toward helping to realize our own political power, so I moved to Washington, DC. I spent several years working on Capitol Hill and then eventually to the White House to work for President Obama - working on issues from immigration reform to health reform to income inequality and college affordability.
I have had the privilege to be at the decision making table with some of our country's most important leaders - from Members of Congress to Cabinet Secretary's to national business and community leaders to the President of the United States. And yes, as a 5'0 Latina, it can sometimes be intimidating. But I have to remind myself that I am there because I bring a set of experiences and perspective that is important for me to share.
The issues I have worked on are hard and complicated and none have been easy to advance, some of which will continue to be challenges we will work on for many years, maybe even decades - but they are all issues that in my mind, helped us to make the world more just, to make the playing field more even, so that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules has a chance to succeed. Ideals that I think Archbishop Romero would have fundamentally agreed with. There have been many times when we have hit bumps in the road - like a 2010 failed vote for passage of the Dream Act to where we are with the broken immigration system today - that I have had to channel Archbishop Romero's encouragement to take the long view. These movements of social justice and social change don't happen overnight.
What I have learned over time – from my days in El Salvador to where I sit today is it is It's all about perspective. Whether you are in the class room, the board room, or the Situation Room of the White House, it’s all about the past experiences and perspective you bring to the table. I am grateful to the Casa program and the Salvadoran people that I grew to know and love to have given me perspective - perspective of a world beyond my comfort zone one that has helped me to see a bigger picture and bigger world in various places where I have been able to step up to be a leader. It has a lit a fire inside my heart that has stayed burning bright over the last 12 years and hopefully will for many more.
To close with a quote from another martyr, Martin Luther King, Jr. “The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” It is our role to take that long view and know our role in this, that we plant the seeds to be sown one day and we all do our part to bend the arc a bit more toward justice.
Paul Shoaf Kozak
There are few, if any, experiences in life that make us ontologically different. That is to say, they change us at the core and move us to understand the essence of who we are in a wildly more profound way. Typically, these are experiences that provoke infinite amounts of gratitude. Participating in La Casa de la Solidaridad, whereby I was gifted the opportunity to be immersed amongst the Salvadoran people and their social reality for a semester, was a life experience that drastically altered my ontological view of self. Although this chance to know a part of El Salvador happened back in the fall of 2002 when I was a junior at John Carroll University majoring in Political Science, I continue to interpret and re-interpret my own identity and purpose through the pair of lenses given to me by Griselda, Paty, Fito, Julio, Boris, Reina, Melvin, Carmen, Padre Luis and many others.
Today a significant form of this aforementioned meaning making occurs for me outside of Boston, MA at a county jail, where I am employed as Interfaith Coordinator (a fancy title for prison chaplain). In accompanying 1000+ men and women who are “locked up”, I frequently encounter the same virtues of hope, resilience, courage, and faith that I came to witness first in the Salvadorans. Granted the pain and suffering felt by these inmates is particular to this unique reality. At the same time, it is precisely through solidarity, community, and loving kindness that their pain and suffering begins to be redeemed.
I came to the Northeast of the United States in 2009 with my companion, Rebecca. While she completed a Master’s Degree of Social at Boston College, I studied theology there. She now works as clinical social worker for an organization that serves people affected by HIV/AIDS. Most recently, we have been graced by the births of our two children, Luca and Joaquín. Caring for children has only heightened our sense of urgency to manifest goodness and truth in this world. It is a desire and a vision that I first learned of through Romero, the UCA martyrs, and all of the Salvadorans who faithfully gave themselves for others in the hope that their seeds would one day bear fruit for what Dean Brackley might call God’s Kingdom.
A few weeks back during one of our spirituality groups at the jail, an older gentleman remarked, “This group is salvation for me.” Besides naming his own experience, he also puts words to my Casa experience. At that time in my life, it was salvation. In 2014 I see the Casa as a salvific experience that is ongoing.
Jelena Radovic Fanta
Academic Year Adjunct Lecturer at Santa Clara University
My time spent as a student in the Casa program in El Salvador was profoundly transformative and still informs my life more than 10 years later. I was immersed in a reality of everyday economic challenges, where the legacy of a violent civil war was palpable, and where hope and community were continuously built one day after the other. I learned how people struggle to make do and strive for justice, not through textbooks and articles but through engaging in our praxis sites, living in community with fellow students, and sharing quotidian activities and conversations with Salvadorans who became dear friends.
Taking classes in the Casa and the UCA (Universidad Centroamericana) we unpacked the economic, political, and religious processes in order to critically explore and bridge the realms of academia and social reality. Living in community with fellow students as we tackled these issues was a key element in our experiences and growth. I was also deeply inspired by the legacy of women and men who dedicated their lives⎯and oftentimes lost them⎯to the pursuit of fighting injustice, poverty, and human rights violations. This did not remain confined to El Salvador, but has shaped the paths I have taken along with other Casa alums to communities around the world.
I am from Viña del Mar, Chile and arrived to the United States for my undergraduate studies at Santa Clara University. I stumbled into an Anthropology course as a sophomore, became enamored of the discipline, and graduated with a double major in Anthropology and Environmental Studies. As a junior I studied abroad in El Salvador and returned to the Casa program after graduation to work as a Community Facilitator. During that year I accompanied students in their study abroad experience and volunteered at a human rights NGO Pro-Búsqueda that investigates the cases of disappeared children during the civil war.
I subsequently began my doctoral studies in Anthropology at University of California, Riverside. I formed part of a stimulating community of scholars, thinkers, and activists that explored questions of society, politics, and how humans give meaning to their lives. During graduate school I discovered a passion for teaching and engaging students as they grapple with inquiries of who we are and how we shape the society we live in. As a graduate student I returned to Chile for two years to carry out doctoral research, partially funded by the Inter-American Foundation. My dissertation investigates the lived experiences of female seasonal laborers who work in fruit packing plants in Chile’s Aconcagua Valley. Specifically, I examine the effects of precarious working conditions, neoliberal labor regimes, and cyclical un/employment patterns on women’s subjectivities. During this time I also worked as a consultant on gender and labor issues faced by seasonal workers. I completed my Ph.D. in December 2012 and subsequently worked as an adjunct lecturer at the Anthropology Department of UC Riverside, where I taught Political Anthropology and introductory Cultural Anthropology courses.
I recently moved back to northern California and am employed as a lecturer at Santa Clara University. I teach courses on Latin America, gender, and social change in the Anthropology and Sociology Departments. It has been very positive to be closer to the Santa Clara and Casa communities. For prospective students considering enrolling in the Program, I highly encourage you to find out more about it and speak to students who have already gone. I was challenged to live and critically examine issues of poverty, inequities, development, and community; these are questions that I am still exploring to this day. Without a doubt, the Casa program still plays a fundamental role in my professional and personal endeavors.
Program Officer for Eisenhower Fellowships
More than a dozen years after my participation in Casa de la Solidaridad in El Salvador, I still look to this as the most formative experience to date. I often find myself returning to the relationships developed there, the lessons of love and compassion learned, and the formidable spirit of the Salvadorans from which to draw inspiration, motivation and clarity. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had tremendous experiences throughout my life, but still none compares to the time I spent at the Casa.
When I participated in the program, I was a junior at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where I was a Theology major, minoring in Spanish and Faith Justice. What exactly I was hoping to do with a degree in theology, I wasn’t quite sure. It was my particular interest in Liberation Theology that drew me to El Salvador, but it was so much more that made the experience so formative. I mention that only to say, no matter what you study, where you are coming from, this experience has the potential to give you a foundation upon which you can build for the rest of your life – wherever that may take you.
After my graduation from St. Joe’s, I taught high school Spanish for a year before creating and managing the Office of Community Service for Temple University. I drew on many of my experiences in El Salvador to influence the community and international programming that I developed in this role.
Since then, I have completed my Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government. For the past four years I have been serving as a program officer for Eisenhower Fellowships, a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing international dialogue and collaboration through professional exchange. There I manage eighteen program administrators in as many countries, and work with some of the most talented leaders in all sectors from the U.S. and international communities.
There’s nothing I can say that I feels adequately captures the profound ways in which the Casa influenced, challenged, and shaped me. What I can say is that it continues to do those things for me thirteen years later. I can’t think of a better investment of time and energy that will undoubtedly pay off for a lifetime.
Senior Portfolio Manager at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
One of the best quotes I heard at the Casa, and emblematic of so many of our experiences in El Salvador is, “Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.” Traveler, there is no path; we make the path by walking. I think so many of us in college are trying to figure out how we make sense of our interests and passions with what we want to do with the rest of our lives. It’s been more than a decade since I attended the Casa, and I feel as certain as ever that the Casa shaped so much of my path; in ways that I was searching for, but couldn’t fully define when I sent in my application. At that point, I was majoring in accounting and finance, and while I liked the logic of business classes, it would have been hard to call it my passion. I spent my free time and elective classes trying to learn more about social justice issues and volunteering in the Spokane community that surrounded Gonzaga. There wasn’t a day that went by when I didn’t wonder how this all fit together in the long run.
Then you go to El Salvador and meet someone like Griselda or Cristina, who take you to their home, and offer you the best meal their families may eat all year. You go off to the countryside and stay with a family whose understanding of languages is that the wealthy babies of the world are born speaking English and everyone else is born speaking Spanish. You have heated discussions in class with your peers about the role of social justice vs. charity, and then you take a step toward integrating what you once knew to be true with what you now see.
Today I work for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in a role that absolutely combines my passion and my skills. A core focus of my job is financing projects focused on primary healthcare in Africa. The outcome of this collaboration is a parent being able to sleep through the night because they now know their child won’t die from malaria. It’s the woman who can now access contraceptives to plan for her family so that she can feed all of her children and send them to school. It’s the child who now gets vaccines to protect against preventable diseases. Doctors, teachers, nurses and so many other professions are critical to people worldwide, but through the Casa, I started to see that every profession can intersect with the needs of the world.
Everyone’s time at the Casa is different, but I can’t think of a more formative college experience. For whatever few certainties there are in life, I am confident I would not be where I am today without the Casa.
Brendan Ruddy and Christy Soran