Serving One Another
by Ashley Festa
The legacy of the first Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, who established the university more than 125 years ago, is a Mission dedicated to community service and social justice. Today, that commitment is an essential part of each UIW student's educational experience.
Students can choose volunteer opportunities that best meet their talents and interests. For some, serving their peers is the most appealing choice, and there are several organizations at UIW that give students the opportunity to help one another. Read on to see how UIW students are continuing the university's Mission by helping one another.
Sharing the faith
The Mission states that the University of the Incarnate Word is a Catholic institution that welcomes persons of diverse backgrounds to its community in the belief that their respectful interaction advances the discovery of truth, mutual understanding, self-realization and the common good.
University peer ministers are not only encouraged to reflect on and strengthen their faith, they also take an active role in helping other students do the same.
It is not only Catholic students who are active in peer ministry, said Alejandro Flores, a sophomore Spanish and education major. Students of all religions and beliefs are encouraged to participate.
"I believe that at our age level and at this time in our lives, through the stress of school, we need to reflect on the basics in life," Flores said. "Many students are of different faith backgrounds, and it's interesting to hear what they've lived through."
By listening to the differences and similarities of other students' experiences, the group is able to find common challenges and solutions in each others' stories.
Gabby Valdez agreed. "We're so diverse; we're not just oriented on Catholic (students). We try to incorporate everybody."
Valdez, a junior biology major, handles communications for the group. She is in charge of the peer ministry bulletin board, and she chronicles the groups' events to share with the campus community.
The student life group, called The Fire, is another option for students concentrating on their faith formation. The group "focuses on bringing spirituality and praise to those who live on campus," Flores said.
"If (students) can't make Mass or are not comfortable in a Catholic setting, (the group) helps them feel comfortable in a student setting."
Flores said creating a comfort zone is one of the best ways he knows to help his fellow students.
"We serve as mentors if students don't feel comfortable talking to someone grown up," Flores said. "We're a family away from home."
Peer ministry allows students to talk about their problems without fear of judgment, Flores said, and they make students feel comfortable just the way they are.
In the fall, Campus Ministry offered a campus-wide retreat. The theme was Vocations, which referred not only to careers, but also addressed God's desired direction for our lives.
Students were given the opportunity to reflect on their calling in life.
They are asked to consider "Is this what God wants for you?" Flores said.
He said he feels his service with peer ministry is important not only for other students, but also for himself. "We bring enrichment to ourselves by helping."
The STARS program, which stands for Students Teaching and Advocating Responsible Self-growth, is a group of peer educators who inform other students about health and wellness, with a concentration on alcohol, drug and violence education.
"People don't understand that when you're over 21, you have a lot more responsibility than when you're younger," said Dallas Janicke, a junior nursing student and the president of the STARS organization.
She emphasized that "STARS never preaches, but we promote responsibility."
The alcohol and drug education opportunities first piqued her interest in the STARS program. She wanted to make a difference at UIW.
She said that there are a lot of misconceptions among students about alcohol use. She mentioned the stigmas of fraternity and sorority hazing, even though UIW does not allow this ritual. Alcohol as a rite of passage of turning 21 is also a misconception for many students, and STARS helps show students that's not how it really is, Janicke said.
Each fall semester, STARS and Health Services hold the Sober Roads event, which promotes the safe use of alcohol, especially during the holiday season. Meant not only to teach, the event also offers students a good time. Campus Police supplies special goggles that simulate the vision impairment of an intoxicated driver, and mock cocktails also are provided.
During the spring, the university holds a Wellness Fair, which focuses on different aspects of health. Free screenings are offered, along with information promoting a safe spring break, including safe alcohol use and encouraging the use of sunscreen.
"We are providing them (students) with resources they need as an adult," Janicke said.
Students "dread coming to the mandatory (alcohol) meetings, but by the end of the night you can tell it really made a difference" because "they're more willing to share their own experiences rather than just listen to us talk," she said.
Members of STARS are role models for other students. "We practice what we preach," Janicke said, although she's hesitant to use the word "preach" because STARS aim to lead by example.
Agents of goodwill
Perhaps one of the best ways to describe the university student ambassadors is the way sophomore Teddy Nami-rembe put it. They are the face of the university.
Student ambassadors represent the university to prospective students. They guide tours and answer questions for high school and transfer students considering UIW for their education. Namirembe, an education major, theorized that if student ambassadors do their jobs well and "represent the school right," the number of incoming students will continue to rise.
As an advocate for Incarnate Word, student ambassadors must ensure that potential students have all their questions about the university answered.
Because prospective students may be timid about asking questions, student ambassadors must be proactive and discuss general topics of interest to new students.
"It's a good opportunity for (incoming) students to meet more established students," said Andrew Holzman, a junior economics and finance major. "High school seniors have a lot of misconceptions about college and fitting in." As a student ambassador, Holzman tries to clear up their misunderstandings.
He tells incoming students about campus activities, dorm life and about classes and academic programs. He tries to make them feel more comfortable about college, especially because many students at UIW are first generation college students.
In addition to helping students feel more at home, Holzman said he tries to help students get involved at the university, especially because UIW has such a high commuter population. Rather than just coming to campus for class, he advocates joining student groups and organizations to make the most of the college experience. He tells incoming students about the various organizations that he's joined, the opportunities for participating in different clubs on campus, and about the possibility of starting their own organizations if they choose.
For Bridget Murphy, the need to be involved helped lead her to the student ambassadors organization. The sophomore English major came to UIW from out of state, and she admitted she felt a little lost upon her arrival. Student ambassadors gave her a place to meet people and get involved on campus. "I want to help other people make that transition, too," she said. To do that, she presents a friendly face for incoming students and acts as "someone who's been there" to help answer questions they might have.
In the end, it's really very simple to Murphy. "It's your school, and you love it, so you try to get people to come."