The Jesuit conference last April in Mexico City, “Networking Jesuit Higher Education for the Globalizing World: Shaping the Future for a Humane, Just, Sustainable Globe,” provided a fitting setting for the birth of the Casa Educational Network, a new initiative in building a global network among Jesuit universities of praxis-based educational opportunities grounded in accompanying the poor and marginalized.
During the conference, the presidents of the University of San Francisco, Santa Clara University, and the Ateneo de Manila University signed a memorandum of understanding of cross-university collaboration to develop and run a new study abroad program, Casa Bayanihan in Manila. The first cohort of students will start in the Philippines in August 2011. Those three Jesuit universities, along with the Universidad Centroamericano, which is involved with the Casa de la Solidaridad in El Salvador, comprise the new Casa Educational Network.
“The hope of the Casa Educational Network is to be able to take the successful program of Casa de la Solidaridad and make that kind of praxis-based education available to more students,” says Mark Ravizza, SJ, an associate professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University who will serve as Jesuit-in-Residence at Casa Bayanihan. The plan, he says, is to continue to find partners in different countries around the globe for additional Casa programs.
Through the Casa Educational Network, students from across the US who want to partake of the Casa experience of solidarity with the poor can choose from a variety of programs in different countries, while universities can share resources and expertise to provide those educational opportunities.
“One of the things that I think is so promising about the Casa network is that we can enter into collaborative partnerships that allow us to share our expertise across borders,” Ravizza says.
The collegial nature and goodwill among the participants shows that “universities from the developed world can work with those from the rest of the world, that we all benefit from each other,” notes Gerardo Marin, vice provost at USF, who oversees international programs. “That ability to speak the same language in a sense, the shared values [of the Jesuit mission and identity], makes it much easier to understand each other, to contribute and to collaborate.”
He emphasizes that the relationships involve sharing back and forth among participants. “This is not us taking over a program, or exporting our program,” he says. “We’re all learning from each other and our experiences, which are very different. So everyone is learning in the process.”
Kevin Yonkers-Talz agrees. He and his wife Trena have served as co-directors of the Casa de la Solidaridad in El Salvador for the past 11 years. They will relocate to Manila in January to help launch Casa Bayanihan.
“We were very impressed with the Ateneo,” he says of his trip to the Philippines last February with Ravizza and Marin to investigate the feasibility of developing a partnership with the university. “I knew the university was committed to academic excellence, but what surprised me was their extensive formation program. They immerse a large percentage of students into local reality, local communities. We have learned a great deal about praxis-based education here in El Salvador and the trip to Manila made it clear to me that in partnering with them we would learn even more. This is going to be a really dynamic process.”
As they continue the process of putting the program in place, Trena Yonkers-Talz notes, they will be considering how to share resources and expertise and yet be flexible enough to respond to the differences in the universities and the differences in cultures and context. The model developed in El Salvador “is going to look different there in ways that we can’t yet imagine. We look forward to seeing how Casa Bayanihan takes on its unique identity in a different cultural context.”
That model is built on the pillars of accompaniment, academics, community and spirituality. Students spend two days a week accompanying people within the local community, allowing genuine relationships with the poor and facilitating an understanding of the realities of their lives. “We are clear with the students when they arrive that we do not talk about their experiences in the communities in terms of volunteering,” she says. “When they are here, it isn’t about solving problems. It’s about accompanying people on the margins. These experiences of accompaniment are then intentionally interwoven with their academic, community and spiritual life."
Over 500 students have gone through the Casa de la Solidaridad in the last two decades. Two alumni, Grace Carlson and Heidi Kallen, will direct the new Casa Bayanihan beginning in January 2012, when the Yonkers-Talz family returns to El Salvador.
“With the Casa Bayanihan, there seems to be a recognition of the potential to unite the expansive network of institutions of Jesuit education, focusing more on greater interdependence rather than isolated pockets of cooperation,” Carlson says. “Programs like the Casa have the potential to plant seeds for continued work in service of others. Perhaps there has also been recognition that an education that ties academics closely to a difficult reality of people we have grown to love will have the power to move people towards justice.”
Although the Casa Education Network itself may be new, the fundamental principles behind it are firmly rooted in the Ignatian identity, Ravizza says. “That’s what’s exciting about it. In many ways, we are being faithful to a long tradition of Jesuit education, but we are adapting this old tradition in new ways for the globalized world of the 21st century.”