St. John’s Students Spend Vacation on Immersion Trips and Service Plunges

April 15, 2019

Winter break often provides an opportunity for college students to recharge their batteries after a busy semester. However, this past January, several groups of St. John’s students chose to forego rest and relaxation in order to serve and learn at various sites throughout the country.

Groups of St. John’s students traveled to Houston, TX; St. Louis, MO; and Philadelphia, PA, for a week of outreach, advocacy, accompaniment, construction, and community building as part of the University’s Plunge Program. Another group of students traveled to Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery, AL, as well as to Atlanta, GA, for a weeklong Journey for Justice immersion in the civil rights movement and an in-depth view of that historic period of time.

A Week of Building and Bonding

In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey unleashed catastrophic flooding that devastated the Houston metropolitan area; damage estimates totaled more than $125 billion. More than 180,000 homes were damaged, over 9,000 were destroyed—and the cleanup continues to this day. 

St. John’s students spent a week working in concert with All Hands and Hearts–Smart Response, an international relief organization that has been working in the Houston area since January 2018 and has committed to continue their efforts there for at least three years. 

Biology major Andres Munoz came to St. John’s intensely devoted to his studies and his goal of attending graduate school. Now in his senior year, service was initially not on his radar.

“I never did service like this before but recently I realized something was missing. That something was the Houston Plunge. It was time to move out of my comfort zone.”

St. John’s students lived in community with other students from around the country in housing provided by All Hands and Hearts. Most were separated during their workdays, which gave them an opportunity to bond with other workers. “I wanted to challenge myself,” observed sophomore Ziona Powell, a Health and Human Services major. “I like to say we met a lot of explorers.”

First-year student Katie Byrnes, a Homeland Security major, wanted to go to Texas because she vividly recalled the devastation Hurricane Sandy unleashed on her hometown of East Rockaway, NY. “Having been on the other side of that experience through my extended family, I wanted to find a way to give back.” 

Each night, students shared with each other their reflections on the day’s experience. “That was one of my favorite parts of the day,” observed junior Dana Weinstein. The Pharmacy major noted that she took a step back and realized how she grew as a person. “I was able to give it a voice, and I heard from my peers what they got out of their day. It really validated the experience.”

Graduate student Samantha Melendez, also a plunge leader, added that, in some cases, participants may never come into contact with those they serve, or finish the projects they start. “However, the small part you play is part of a greater whole. You know that one day this house is going to be finished.” 

Ziona had a message for anyone hesitant to take a plunge. “Don’t be intimidated and think that this is something beyond your capabilities. Take the leap.”

Inspired by History

During the Journey for Justice trip, St. John’s students visited museums and other institutions dedicated to documenting the injustices endured by slaves. They learned about the rise of the Jim Crow south and the lynchings, bombings, marches, and demonstrations that helped fuel the movement. “The trip changed my view of civil rights and racial violence in the United States because it taught me how prevalent these problems remain in our society,” said Amanda DeLisi, a junior majoring in History.

Amanda was one of 20 students who applied for and were selected to participate in the University’s first-ever Journey for Justice, which also took place in January. The students represented nearly all of the schools and colleges at St. John’s, as well as a broad spectrum of majors that included the sciences, business, education, and criminal justice.

Amanda said she was especially struck by the visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the museum’s dedication to memorializing the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by white supremacists that killed four young African American girls.

Noting the church is located within sight of the museum, Amanda said, “I was looking at one of the exhibits where I’m staring at the faces of the men who committed this horrible act, and then, I turn around and see the church, which is just across the street, through a window. That had an extremely emotional impact because I realized that the bombing only happened a few yards away from where I was standing. It also made me confront that awful past and realize that it was not such a long time ago when the bombing took place.”

The students also engaged with people who either served on the front lines of achieving racial justice and equality or possessed a strong knowledge of civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s, up to the present day.

The trip culminated with a special dinner arranged in Montgomery by the Resurrection Catholic Missions of the South, Inc., to give the St. John’s group the opportunity to meet and interact with civil rights leaders of the past and present. Nelson Malden, a civil rights activist of the 1950s and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s barber, was among the guests.