Toward a Globalization of Solidarity: Reflections on Ten Years of Donovan Fellowships

by Valerie Sarma |

Each fall I have the privilege of meeting students passionate about social justice and yearning for a real understanding of the world we share. They are students applying for the Jean Donovan Fellowship, sponsored by the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education at Santa Clara University.

Attracted by University support, a financial stipend, and a desire to engage in service, students begin by placing their dreams on paper: educating children in Tanzania; farming with migrants in Salinas; supporting homeless women in Boston; teaching dance in El Salvador; caring for the destitute of India; and the dreams continue, each one more inspirational than the next.

The Jean Donovan Fellowship began more than 10 years ago, and now there are 15 student fellows annually, spending their summers in solidarity with people of limited access to wealth, power, and privilege. Donovan Fellows seek to understand the reality of their communities, both globally and locally, and are often inspired in much the same way as the Fellowship’s namesake.

Jean Donovan was a young woman searching for meaning in a complex world. Born into a comfortable Connecticut suburb, her heart was first opened to global injustices while studying as a university student in Ireland. A growing restlessness led her away from a promising business career and into a community of like-minded, socially conscious peers. “Jean Donovan was twenty-six, and she was very much a child of her time. She was not a saint or a hero. She was idealistic and vulnerable, she had a great sense of fun, and she was hungry for life’s mysteries and opportunities.”(1)

Arriving in 1979 El Salvador, Jean found herself immersed in a civil war. Her “political” work, for which she was later killed, was nothing more than running a food program. Yet, her real calling was being present to her Salvadoran community in daily life: giving motorcycle rides, singing Irish ballads, and listening to their hopes, struggles, and fears. Jean “became aware that the very people she had come all this way to help—the illiterate farmworkers and their families, surviving from day to day in their bone-poor, uncluttered houses—had something that she wanted. What they had to teach her about life and suffering, about courage and human dignity, about friendship and solidarity, just might provide some answers to the mysterious, elusive calling that had brought her here.”(2)

As the violence escalated in El Salvador and it became clear that Jean’s life was in jeopardy, she was committed to remaining with the people of El Salvador. Such is the power of solidarity. “Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could except for the children, the poor bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.” (3)

Donovan Fellow Tanya Schmidt '12 with students in Peru. Photo courtesy of Valerie Sarma


Jean’s life has come to represent an authentic transformation rooted in humility, faith, and fellowship. It is increasingly important for today’s students to connect with the suffering in our world, and enable their own transformations. The Jean Donovan Fellowship allows students to create this opportunity, and the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education provides the guidance for critical reflection in a structured and nurturing environment.


In November 2010, 100 alumni and current Fellows celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Jean Donovan Fellowship. Rooted in a deep solidarity with their host communities, alumni shared their personal transformations.

“...El Salvador was a pivotal point in my life. I lived in a small town that seemed idyllic, but met many people who had family...who were planning to go to the United States themselves. This made me interested in the economic, political, and social reasons why people would leave their friends and family and travel to a place where the life of an immigrant is so difficult.... I fell in love with immigration law and decided to go to law school to pursue this career path. Today I am a staff attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid, providing legal representation to low-income domestic violence survivors in immigration and family law matters. I would not be here today if it was not for the support and encouragement I received as a Donovan Fellow.” (5)  -Kristin Love Boscia '03, J.D. '08 (El Salvador) “As we held each other I felt her squeeze a little tighter, her petite frame much smaller than mine. I heard a few sniffles and I knew she was crying. I looked at her and smiled, tears welling up in my own eyes, and we just cried and hugged each other. I knew I had become part of these children’s lives, just as they were a part of mine, and I knew that it would be hard to leave. I felt an immense amount of gratitude to be able to experience this love...with everyone at the Hogar.” (7)  -Sheeva Sabati '06 (Hogar Tierra Santa, Honduras)
“The month inspired much thought related to themes such as how we define and live out our ideals related to ‘work,’ ‘success,’ and especially ‘social justice.’” (6) -Noelle Lopez '09, Rhodes Scholar (Watsonville, Calif.) “It knocked me off my high horse. It changed the way I look at politics and international relations.” (8) -Jacob David, M.D. '04 (Sarajevo Youth House)
In Calcutta, Ferron worked in an orphanage and a school for homeless children. “He made friends with a family that lived on a blanket in a soccer field,” says Paul Fitzgerald, S.J., senior associate dean of SCU’s College of Arts and Sciences. During that time, “there was an amazing progression in his writing,” from a focus on the overwhelming smells, sights, and sounds, to stories about the people there, to his delight at being accepted by those he served, Fitzgerald added.(9) -SCU Press Release on Neil Ferron '05, Playwright (Calcutta, India)



“Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could except for the children, the poor bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.” -Jean Donovan


In his keynote address from Mexico City, “Depth, Universality, and Learned Ministry,” Fr. Adolfo Nicolás offers a thought-provoking articulation of the “globalization of superficiality,” an alarming trend impacting our students and institutions, marked by a “superficiality of thought, visions, dreams, relationships, convictions,” and a failure to engage “the hard work of forming communities of dialogue in the search for meaning and truth.”(4) The obvious aftermath of such superficiality, according to Fr. Nicolás, can be an underdeveloped and dehumanized understanding of our most critical global issues, a shallow appreciation for the complexity of reality, and a difficulty in forming truly empathic and creative relationships. In essence, the globalization of superficiality can impede a contemplative, thoughtful, and profound engagement with “reality.” In his treatise for positive change, Fr. Nicolás calls our Jesuit institutions to “promote in creative new ways the depth of thought and imagination that are distinguishing marks of the Ignatian tradition.”10 A “real” understanding of ourselves and our neighbors within the globalized world can evoke the real passion and engagement required for transformation.

Through the Ignatian Center’s Donovan Fellowship, Fr. Nicolás’s “real” experience is available to students through solidarity with their communities. We enable students to follow their own passionate dreams and not the dreams of others. Their experiences invariably offer unforeseen hurdles, resulting in confusion, pain, and feelings of inadequacy, but this is exactly the goal of the experience. It is within these difficult moments that profound growth occurs. Ignatian Center advisors facilitate contemplation and reflection, helping students identify and process their experiences and growth. As Donovan Fellow Quentin Orem ’12 recently shared, “By entering into another reality, our own reality is deeply affected… our suffering neighbors call us to be real college students and graduates, actively engaging the real world.”(11)

At his talk in Mexico City, Fr. Nicolás shared his profound belief that “in all of our diversity we are in fact a single humanity.” (12) The Ignatian Center has at its core the same goal—the powerful notion of living in solidarity with our local and global families. If the fundamental question remains “to recreate the journey, and recreate the faith”(13) with the goal of shaping a more humane world, following the example set by Jean Donovan is a wonderful first step.

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