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In First Visit to Ghana, Ozanam Scholars Use Field of Study to Address Social Injustices

In First Visit to Ghana, Ozanam Scholars Use Field of Study to Address Social Injustices
Tuesday, March 20, 2018

For John Hobbs, eye-opening experiences have filled his four years of research and service in the Ozanam Scholars Program at St. John’s University. Yet some of his most prized moments came this past January, when the Legal Studies major joined fellow students for a senior trip to Accra, Ghana.

“It was more than educational,” said the Pasadena, CA, native. “It was truly inspiring.” He tutored children through a local nonprofit agency and proposed a campaign to inform Accra residents about educational resources the government is mandated to provide. He and his fellow Scholars also toured historic sites like the Cape Coast Castle, a fortress that once was the center of the transatlantic slave trade.

John is one of 10 students who joined the Ozanam Scholars’ first trip to Ghana, from January 1 to 15.  Like many of the excursions arranged through the program, the visit immersed students in the culture of a developing nation while engaging them in research and Vincentian service. To participate, students submitted an application including a 1,000-word essay. Freshman through senior year trips regularly bring Ozanam Scholars to sites including Puerto Rico, Ecuador, India, and Vietnam.

“The Ghana trip was a culmination of sorts,” said Carline Bennett, Director of the Ozanam Scholars Program. “For four years, our students are exposed to different types of service and community-based research. Now they were able to put these experiences into action, by connecting their majors and career interests to the mission and work of an organization that addresses social justice needs.”

Ms. Bennett accompanied the Ozanam Scholars, as did Manouchkathe Cassagnol, Pharm.D., Associate Clinical Professor in St. John’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. The students split into pairs to perform at least 60 hours of service and research at an assigned clinic or non-governmental agency.  Students co-led nightly reflection sessions while Ms. Bennett and Dr. Cassagnol guided scholars in cultural immersions and project proposals.

Launched in 2007, the Ozanam Scholars Program is a selective academic initiative admitting approximately 25 freshmen each year. Successful applicants receive up to $10,000 per year in scholarship aid to work with faculty and administrators on projects that address systemic poverty and injustice. In addition to volunteering at partner sites throughout New York City, students engage in research and service trips around the world.

“What students see is St. John’s mission at work,” said Dr. Cassagnol, who serves on the program’s Faculty Advisory Committee and is a Vincentian Research Fellow at the University. “They learn to utilize their talents to assist organizations in serving those in need. Reflection sessions help them see how, in these ways, we can actually move the social justice needle forward.”

Gleymy Garcia, a dual Criminal Justice and Homeland Security major from the Bronx, NY, was assigned to a nonprofit agency that combines academics and athletics for impoverished children. Along with volunteering, Gleymy helped the organization develop a proposal to open branches in Europe through partnerships. “I discovered that resources make all the difference,” she said. “The agency pays the kids’ expenses. If they do well academically, they may participate in upcoming games. They really work hard.”

For many students, learning about Ghana’s role in the slave trade was especially meaningful. While touring the Cape Coast Castle, “I could feel the history—and the pain.  You entered the dungeon and there was a choking and gasping-for-air type of feeling,” said Kristi Campbell, an Information Technology major from Stone Mountain, GA. “I am African American, so there was a special connection to that experience. It allowed me to self-reflect on the hardships my ancestors faced and to understand the importance of persistence in today’s time.”

The experience was profoundly moving for Dr. Cassagnol as well. “As an African American, I realize that my own ancestors may have suffered in that place,” said Dr. Cassagnol. “This is, in part, what the Ozanam Scholars Program accomplishes—it confronts students with tangible examples of injustice, making the desire to do something, to find solutions, even more urgent.”