Santa Clara University

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Immersion Trips: Building Community

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Laurie Laird and Luis Calero, S.J., with Maria Serrano, an inspirational teacher who’s a former campesina leader and former deputy in the Salvadorian National Assembly.
Every autumn for the past five years, Laurie Laird has teamed up with Luis Calero, S.J., to lead Santa Clara faculty and staff on immersion trips to El Salvador. It’s an experience that fosters richly human connections and offers lessons that can’t be taught at a distance. “You can learn about what’s happening in El Salvador by reading about it,” Laird says. “But you can’t have that human connection and understanding unless you see each other.”

Here on the Mission campus, Laird directs the Arrupe Partnerships program, arranging placements for students involved in community-based learning. Her role leading immersion trips is both a natural extension of that work and a way of making the Jesuit commitment to solidarity an integral part of the experience for Santa Clara staff and faculty.

The immersion trips include meetings with a Salvadorian supreme court justice involved in human rights work, with teachers and community organizers, and with religious leaders. The experience of solidarity helps answer questions like: What role does the Catholic Church play in all this? What historically have the Jesuits been doing, and what are they doing currently? “Look at what the Jesuit University in El Salvador is undertaking,” Laird says. “What can we learn from that?”

CarolynDance_180The voices and stories of the inspiring people the travelers meet “weave in and out of each other” and offer a broader tapestry of the history and the gritty economic reality in El Salvador, and they share new perspectives on the role the United States has played and continues to play there. “It offers a new sense of what our personal responsibilities are as individuals, as educators, as North Americans, and as people of faith,” Laird says.

For the faculty and staff on the trips, there are grand moments of epiphany and small surprises—a dance instructor joining children on a stage, sharing in the joy of music and movement and being alive. There might be a collaborative project: Photographer and SCU lecturer David Pace teamed up with poet and associate English professor Juan Velasco to render their experiences in El Salvador in words and images, and they paired their work with Campus Minister Greg Schultz’s haunting music in a multimedia project. The experience also affects people in ways they hadn’t initially realized—bearing fruit in scholarship and creative work months or years later.

The immersion trips also yield tremendous bonding between members of the University community, which brings it all back home. “How that unfolds,” Laird says, “is one of the things that I find to be life-giving.”