Feeling Connected from a Distance
Reflections of Ignatian Fellow Afton Burrell ’21
This year we introduced the Ignatian Fellowship which offers SCU undergraduates the opportunity to deepen their commitment to social justice through an entirely virtual community-based learning experience.
We had 14 amazing Ignatian Fellows this inaugural year, including Afton Burrell '21 who completed her fellowship working with A Step Ahead Foundation. Afton shares her experience in the following relfections.
Describe a time of great joy you experienced during your fellowship experience.
Along with providing education, information, and access to the most effective forms of birth control to any woman in Memphis, TN, A Step Ahead Foundation has given out more than a million dollars in scholarship funds to individuals looking to pursue some form of secondary education. This past quarter, I worked with the Director of Marketing and Development to reach out to previous recipients, collect testimonials, and measure the impact of the scholarship program as a whole. In the years since ASAF was founded, teen pregnancy has been reduced by 50% in the city and more and more women are pursuing higher education. This is evident in the responses I received from past recipients, which were overwhelmingly positive. Emails came flooding in from individuals attending schools all across the country, studying medicine, law, public health, art history, and social work. Individuals that hadn’t even expected to graduate high school were now receiving doctorates, all because of an organization that removed a few key barriers to possibility and success. While all of the emails I received were amazing, a Zoom conversation with one scholarship recipient really stood out to me. Her confidence, drive, and ambition almost leaped out of the screen. By removing physical barriers to a better life, we were removing psychological and mental barriers to success as well! You could tell that what ASAF was doing, and continues to do, really matters. This isn’t just about birth control. It’s about opening doors to a more just future wherein everyone has the freedom to choose the life he or she wants to live and be a part of. In that moment, I was so lucky and delighted to be a part of such an important life-changing organization.
Discuss the significance of this fellowship in your life and your SCU experience in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, last year’s tense election, and the stresses of school, I found myself seeking connection and kindness in a world that was seemingly falling apart. I remember seeing a clip of CNN’s Van Jones crying on air after the network called the US election for Joe Biden. He said, “It’s easier to be a parent this morning… to tell your kids, character matters.” As someone looking to go into the healthcare profession, the relief embedded in that statement really resonated with me. Something that we thought was important really did matter, as did our efforts to make it happen. With this in mind, I wanted to feel like what I was doing mattered too. I wanted to work with an organization that made a tangible impact on communities, specifically those that have been systemically marginalized or disenfranchised in the past. I needed to see firsthand that kindness was still valued in this world, along with character. This fellowship allowed me to work with individuals that care about the same things that I do, who maintain the same value system that I do. I was able to not only step outside the bounds of my comfort zone and learn about another community, but form bonds with the employees that work so hard each day to create social change. As someone who hasn’t been able to make as much of an impact in the community as I would’ve liked, given the pandemic and switch to remote activities, this was really important for me.
What about this fellowship enhanced your experience of virtual learning during this particularly challenging time?
It’s easy to zone out and feel disconnected while staring at a computer screen for hours on end. However, I’ve found that having a virtual fellowship has given me an inside look into spaces that are normally incredibly hard to explore in person. Given the intense stigma surrounding women’s health, reproductive justice, and discussions of sexuality in our world, the computer screen can feel like a protective barrier for someone who may be uncomfortable talking about their experiences. Similarly, without the distractions of the outside world, conversations are more intimate and direct. I was able to work one-on-one with each member of the organization and ask a wide variety of questions that I probably wouldn’t have gotten the chance to ask in person. In terms of speaking with members of the community, this method of communication was oftentimes even MORE convenient, given that no party had to travel anywhere to have a meeting. Call me crazy, but this was the most “connected” I’ve felt with others throughout my time at SCU!
What does this tell you about who you are and what you value?
I value the pursuit of knowledge in tandem with humility. Even in spaces where I think I know a good deal about the topic at hand, there is always so much more to learn and understand (not to mention, new perspectives to listen to). It has become very clear over the last few months that even as I transition to the next stages of my life - likely outside of an academic environment - I will never truly be done learning. And I’m so happy to admit that.