Service has always been a core part of Fordham’s Catholic American Studies concentration, a selective program designed to give undergraduate students of any major a deeper appreciation of the historical, theological, and cultural manifestations of Catholicism.

But this semester, the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, which supervises the program, partnered with the Center for Community Engaged Learning (CCEL), to expand on what it means to serve others.

“The old Jesuit motto is ‘men and women for others,’ but now at Fordham, we’re more about ‘men and women with and for others,’ said Michael Lee, Ph.D., professor of theology and director of the Curran Center.

“I think that that’s key here.”

In January, a group of eleven students in the concentration began meeting every two weeks as part of an “Ignatian Community of Practice.”

Guided conversations have focused on their responsibilities to their communities, the ways different faith traditions address social challenges, the ethical obligations that come with their academic work, and continuing along a path of discernment.

Lee said the meetings are part of a shift of the guiding philosophy of the concentration’s service requirement—from a “service-learning” model to a “community-engaged” or “community asset-based” approach. Elements from the meetings will be incorporated into the Discernment Seminar, a class that all Catholic American Studies students are required to take their sophomore year. As a result, when they engage in service in the future, all of them will work with community partners from whom they will learn as partners. This could entail assisting at organizations such as P.O.T.S., a community group near the Rose Hill campus, the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center, or The Bronx is Blooming.

“I want us to think about our place in the neighborhood and within the wider public, and think about not just a service requirement, but a way of partnering with neighbors and mutually learning,” he said.

Lifting Up Community Voices

Grace Powers, a senior at Fordham College at Rose Hill, is one of 11 students in the concentration who were invited to join the Ignatian Community of Practice. Four years ago, she left a small Kentucky town of roughly 4,500 people to find a more diverse, LGBTQ-friendly populace in New York City. A sociology and history major, Powers says Fordham’s Jesuit heritage has also expanded her perspective of her Catholic faith.

“I’ve come to really appreciate how the Jesuits incorporate Catholicism into daily life,” she said.

“Community engagement and accompaniment focuses more on going into a community and uplifting the voices that are there and listening to their perspectives about what they need.”

She has found particular appeal in the Catholic saying that there are “two feet of justice”: works of mercy and charity, and works of social action. If the first entails volunteering at a soup kitchen, the second might be discussing why a soup kitchen exists in the first place.

From the Bronx to El Salvador

Vanessa Rotondo, associate director of campus engagement and senior advisor for Ignatian Leadership at CCEL, said her partnership with the Curran Center is a natural extension of CCEL’s focus on programs that build community engagement in the Bronx through research projects on health care, housing, and education.

“We saw the students in the American Catholic Studies concentration as the perfect partners, given their intent is to understand emerging Catholic identity as it’s understood by its Greek translation of ‘universal.’”

In one of the meetings, the group covered the underpinnings of Jesuit education; another took place with Frankelly Martinez, program manager at Christian Aid in the Dominican Republic, and Francisco Mena Ugarte, executive director of Christians for Peace in El Salvador. Several members of the community also traveled with Lee to El Salvador as part of his class El Salvador: Revolutionary Faith.

The group’s final meeting will feature Fordham alumni who speak with students about how these lessons and experiences can be applied after graduation.

students and faculty stand in front of a mural on a wall in El Salvador
Students in Professor Lee’s class El Salvador: Revolutionary Faith

A Time for Quiet Reflection

Nolan Chiles, a senior integrated neuroscience major, said many students in the group have known each other since their first year at Fordham, so the dialogue tends to be richer than it might be with strangers.

“At the end of our meetings, we do a quiet reflection for a couple of minutes. Sometimes we’ll say a prayer, and then we’re all encouraged to go around in a circle and share whatever it was that came to light for us,” he said.

“It’s a great time to hear other students’ takes.”

Students in the Ignatian Community of Practice participate in an interfaith dialogue on March 29 with  Vinny Marchionni, S.J., Tabatha Holley, lead pastor of New Day Church, and Hanadi Doleh, director of community partnerships at Interfaith Center of New York.


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.