Seeing Others’ Strengths

by Frederick J. Ferrer |

Frederick J. Ferrer ’80 is the executive director of Estrella Family Services, a founding member of the Arrupe Center Advisory Board, and an adjunct professor in the Department of Education at SCU.

Each year, I invite my college students to come to the front of the class to share all their needs and weaknesses. I ask them to tell us all the ways they feel inadequate when they compare themselves to others. They can share possible solutions if they want, but that’s not really necessary, as I tell them that the whole class will give them advice. We will suggest classes for them to take, therapies they should try, and the amount of time they will need to fix their issues. Funny, but in all my years, no one has ever taken me up on the invitation. It seems so obvious to my students: Why should they expose themselves—even in such a safe and supportive environment? But this is exactly the way that many attempt to help others in need.

Another story. I often tell students about Maria, who taught me the mean- ing of family support. Maria was a young mother of five children who were enrolled in our childcare center. She spoke Spanish, very little English, and was illiterate in both languages. We learned this by accident. When she would sign in her son each day at the center, she would count down a certain number of lines and then sign her name. After a new child enrolled and that line no longer matched her son’s name, she continued to count down and sign on that line. She could not read her own son’s name.

Of her five children, four were in special education classes and the fifth was on his way. The children had three different fathers, and only one of the three was marginally in the picture. There were allegations of abuse against him. Because of Maria’s inability to speak English and her inability to read, she was unable to keep most jobs, even minimum-wage fast food jobs, because she was unable to read even simple signs. She could not help her children with their homework and, in fact, probably had her own learning disabilities that were never properly assessed. Because of her employment history, her income was extremely low. Her children were always in need of the basic necessities: clothes, shoes, and food.

And so I ask: how do you feel about her? Most folks say: “I feel sorry for her.” Or “I feel like I want to help her,” or “I want to help her children,” or “I just want to take the kids home and take care of them.” Now, what if I say: “She’s pregnant.” That’s usually the turning point. Now folks say: “Oh, that’s it, I’m angry now.” We go from non-judgmental concern to strong, judgmental blame.

First of all, Maria is not pregnant. Now I will continue the story. Maria asked me to be godfather to her youngest son. She told me that I had to take a class and she told me how to call the church to register. We had the ceremony, and because her home was small, she had the party afterward at a local park. She asked me to bring a salad. Upon arriving, I saw that she had organized and hosted a wonderful celebration for her family and friends, preparing an incredible Mexican feast, and telling all of us exactly what she needed us to do.

I told her that I wanted her to come and present at our Parent Cooking Night, where parents and staff watch a fellow parent prepare their favorite dish and then share it. The next week she came in and presented to the group. Because she didn’t have written recipes, she dictated the recipes to our staff.

Now if you were a parent at Parent Cooking Night, how would you view her? Most would say talented, skilled, and competent. You would want to learn from her. Rarely would you say you felt sorry for her or wanted to help her.

So what changed? Both parts of the story are still Maria. In the first instance, I described her only by her deficits, to which most people respond with charity. The initial human response to witnessing deficits is the desire to help. And certainly there is nothing wrong with this. But in the second part of the story, I described an environment where Maria could be viewed utilizing her strengths. When you see someone’s strengths, you are more open to seeing opportunities and possibilities for that person. In community-based learning, we attempt to move students to this deeper and sometimes less apparent level. 

When students begin community-based learning, they are often taken aback by the poverty they witness. They see kids who may not have the best clothes or may wear ratty socks. So they go buy a pair of socks and give them

From its inception, Santa Clara University’s Arrupe Center for Community- Based Learning has held strongly to the belief that the Santa Clara student was not going to serve others in the community simply to study “them.” The student would make a contribution to the agency as well as the agency’s making a contribution to the student.

to the child on their next visit. Both usually feel good, but if the students look around, they soon discover that other kids need socks, too, many more socks than a college student can afford to buy. Many students never move beyond the initial stage of seeing a need and fixing it, or deciding they can’t fix it and let- ting it go. Their viewpoint is completely externally focused. For example, I often ask students who had been visiting our center in our midterm check-in what they have done in their placement. They respond readily with their list of activities, usually feeling either very proud of all they had done or feeling a bit bored, as if to say, “Is this all there is? I thought I was going to get more out of this.” But when I change the focus from the external activities and ask, “So what have my children taught you?” the room becomes quiet. The move to internal reflection is a bit awkward at first.

But as students who continue to engage in community-based learning begin to examine what they are learning from the people they are working with, they begin to discover that they have need as well. To understand their own neediness and how they like to have it respected rather than fixed by others allows them to be in solidarity with those whose needs may look different from theirs, but still demand the same respect. This cognitive dissonance is the key to community-based learning: When I saw only Maria’s neediness and mate- rial poverty, I was ready to help and bring the salad. But when I saw and really came to appreciate her strengths, I could see the opportunities and possibilities that were open to her all along. And though Maria had little material wealth, I came to recognize the incredible wealth of insight she gave me.

This developmental growth is mirrored in the institutions as well. From its inception, Santa Clara University’s Arrupe Center for Community-Based Learning has held strongly to the belief that the Santa Clara student was not going to serve others in the community simply to study “them.” The student would make a contribution to the agency as well as the agency’s making a contribution to the student. The agency’s contribution would be to offer a unique, real-world experience of the theory that was being studied in the University classroom. The Santa Clara student would go to the agency not as a volunteer but as a student. The analogy of a library illustrates this goal. If you go to a library as a volunteer you stack books, but if you go to the library as a student you use the books. I would expand the analogy slightly to make my point: If you go to the library as a student you also should contribute to the new book fund to support the library in the work it is trying to accomplish.

And so, the University supports the agency community through its vast resources to strengthen the community. This models the relationship of mutually supportive benefit: a true partnership with the community. Students learn not only about their own capacity to give and learn, they also witness institutions working in solidarity to meet their own needs.

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