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Combined Degree Student and Ozanam Scholar Blends Passion for the Arts with Commitment to Social Justice

Photo by: Caitlin Shea '16C
Thursday, November 17, 2016

Jeremy Ashton ’17C ‘18G came to St. John’s University from Orlando, FL in the fall of 2013 because he was offered a scholarship through the selective Ozanam Scholars Program. “The tuition funding brought me here,” he said, “But the work kept me here.”

Though he was initially interested in acting, Ashton realized once at SJU that he liked writing more and entered the combined BA/MA program in English, minoring in Social Justice: Theory and Practice in the Vincentian Tradition. Then, as he got more and more involved with service opportunities in New York, India, Ecuador, Paris, and Rome through Ozanam, Ashton began to shift his career goals. “The Ozanam Scholars Program has led me to switch from a career in the arts to one more focused in social justice,” he said. “Helping people changed me. I want to maximize my impact as a person in the world and redefine success as service.”

As his capstone project for Ozanam, Ashton is building an arts-based curriculum for the “Divergent” Teen Program at the Safe Horizon Rose House Shelter in Manhattan. He co-founded the program with fellow Ozanam Scholar Elizabeth Jaskolski ‘16C during his sophomore year as an independent study project. The program provides a safe, supportive community for 13-18-year-old residents of the domestic violence shelter and encourages them to express themselves creatively while leading activities. He gave a presentation on his work with Divergent at the Institute on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma (IVAT) conference in Hawaii during the spring 2015 semester. Now a senior, Ashton is working to develop lesson plans and guidelines for future volunteers and staff that will ensure continuity for the program. Along the way, he’s received guidance from English Professor and Graduate Director Steve Mentz, Ph.D., psychology Professor and Director of the Child HELP Partnership (formerly PARTNERS) Elissa Brown, Ph.D., and Library Technical Assistant Lori Conkling. “Several people have mentored me along the way,” said Ashton. “Every time the project changed, I needed a new perspective.”

"Jeremy is a St. John's original, combining relentless ambition to do good in the world with intense curiosity and intelligence,” said Mentz. “He follows the University's service mission to its utmost while achieving academic excellence.”

Ashton has applied his love of the arts to other service opportunities. Also through Ozanam, Ashton volunteered as an English workshop facilitator for 12-15 women learning conversational English using poetry, film, and prose at the Casa Internazionale delle Donne in Rome, Italy during the spring 2014 semester. In that same semester, he served as an English tutor for 14-20 intellectually disabled adult students at the Agorà Centre per soggetti con fragilità sociale in Rome. During his freshman year, Ashton worked with the Homes for the Homeless afterschool program as a literacy coach and phonemic awareness instructor, tutoring a group of 15-20 homeless first grade students living at the Queens Saratoga Family Inn.

While developing Divergent, Ashton became aware of systemic problems leading to social injustices and became interested in working to alleviate them as a public interest lawyer. He gained experience with lobbying and legal non-profit work during the summer before his junior year, when he worked with two organizations – RESULTS and OXFAM America – on grassroots advocacy and leadership. As a poverty fellow with RESULTS, he lobbied on Capitol Hill to end poverty, and received media advocacy training with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and RESULTS Educational Fund. As a CHANGE leader with OXFAM America, he underwent intensive leadership training to become an OXFAM advocate in both college and community settings, and published an article on OXFAM America’s website about the experience.

Though public advocacy work is a considerable shift from Ashton’s original ambition to act, he has found connections among his passions and goals. “I’ve come to understand that lobbying and legal non-profit work has many elements of performance to it,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t realize that an experience is helping you move forward until a year later when you’re able to put it in a different context.”

Ashton is well on his way toward his new career goal of public interest law. During the summer of 2016, he participated in the competitive Ronald H. Brown Law School Prep Program, which identifies leaders in racial, economic, and social justice and offers them early exposure to the study and practice of law.

He credits the combined degree program, which has allowed him to take graduate English courses as an undergraduate student, with helping him develop the leadership and critical thinking skills he’ll need in law and advocacy. Said Ashton: “The combined degree program helped me develop analytical skills and learn to build a project from beginning to end. Taking [Associate Professor Elda Tsou, Ph.D.’s] graduate theory course as an undergraduate student was challenging and taught me both how to look at an idea through many different lenses and, most importantly, how to ‘fail’ when learning difficult concepts. I realized that it’s not about being the smartest person in the room but about learning from your peers and collaborating effectively.”

A love for writing and the arts has always been at the forefront of Ashton’s SJU career, and he has shared his passion for performance, literature, and poetry with others, publishing work in Wild Spice Magazine. “Poetry has been an important tool for me to be creative and figure out who I want to be as a person. That’s what literary studies can do for people,” said Ashton.

This perspective – that the arts are a powerful tool for helping others – has characterized Ashton’s career at SJU so far, and will no doubt guide him toward service and success in the future.