Returning to the Philippines to study this past spring, Teresa Cariño ’13 anticipated a kind of homecoming. The Philippines is her parents’ homeland, after all. She had visited many times. What she found were families crowded into shanties and children living on the streets—scenes she had previously only glimpsed from the security of her family’s car.
"It’s been intense. There is no other way to describe it,” Cariño, a theology and religious studies major at the University of San Francisco, wrote in an email from Manila. For Cariño, Casa Bayanihan has thrown back the curtain on a world of injustice that she knew little about from family vacations.
Thanks to an anonymous donor, six other USF students were with Cariño during the spring semester—all studying tuition-free and accompanying members of underprivileged communities as part of the Casa Bayanihan program.
The study abroad and immersion program—jointly administered by USF, Santa Clara University, and Ateneo de Manila University in Manila—just completed its second semester. Unlike other study abroad programs, Casa teaches by immersing students in marginalized communities and pairing those students with residents or nonprofits working for change. The pillars of the program are accompanying residents of marginalized communities; rigorous academic study; community living, including eating simple meals, washing clothes by hand, and taking cold showers; and spiritual formation.
Students study the Philippine economy, culture, and society; gender equality; Tagalog; and more. Two days a week, and occasionally on weekends, students take what they’ve learned in the classroom into the field at praxis sites, learning from locals about the realities on the ground. The richness of the program lies in the combination of what students learn in the community and in the classroom, and the dialogue that ensues.
Indeed, Casa isn’t about students “parachuting” in to aid needy Filipinos. Historically, that approach has damaged cultures. Students are taught to resist that impulse and reminded that, prior to using the benefits of privilege and power to help others, they must walk humbly with them, and be instructed by their daily reality, said Mark Ravizza, S.J., the Jesuit-in-residence at Casa Bayanihan.
“We aren’t here to help. We are here to learn,” said Cariño, recalling a quote that was recited during her Casa orientation: “‘If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.’” (Lilla Watson)
For Cariño, accompaniment meant building friendships with disabled Filipinos, who often face discrimination, and learning how they manage daily tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and traveling around town. Cariño also tutored special education students and packaged medications from a local pharmaceutical company. For other students, accompaniment meant improving the construction of shanty homes in squatter communities, helping nonprofits educate street children, or learning how micro-loans are administered to small business owners.
Class assignments, community-based research, films, and weekly discussion groups all relate to students’ experiences in local communities. The program’s integration of classroom, real-world, and spiritual lessons are key to students developing an awareness of and compassion for those who experience harsh realities, to advancing a deeper knowledge of themselves, and to living more justly with others, said Grace Carlson, Casa co-director.
Casa challenges students’ thinking about poverty and privilege, the role of faith, the factors that give rise to the suffering they see, and what it means to “help” people. Students stepping outside of their comfort zones is what Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., the 29th superior general of the Society of Jesus, had in mind in 2000 when he issued a new imperative for Jesuit higher education: “Students,” he said, “must let the gritty reality of this world into their lives, so that they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering, and engage it constructively.”
Colleen Curry ’13, who completed Casa in fall 2011, said the realities she encountered in the Philippines broke down barriers that let her close herself off from others’ problems. “It exposed me to a new way of living,” said Curry, an English major. “No longer do I just exist in my California bubble, but in the greater world reality.”
Filipina American Tara Peithman ’12, who also completed Casa in 2011, called the program the most valuable part of her USF experience. “It changed what I want to do after graduation,” said Peithman, who accompanied families living in a squatter community, helping to build homes, teaching art to children, and painting church pews.
Peithman plans to apply for work as an advocate for the Asian community. She’s also pursuing opportunities for development work in the Philippines. “Living in community with others in solidarity and developing a spiritual dimension has completely empowered me,” Peithman said.
Peithman’s experience illustrates Casa’s transformative power.
Through the “gritty reality,” Fr. Ravizza said, students witness the beauty, hope, and faith that, in spite of immense struggles, can remain strong in a broken world.