A first year in college can be a transformational experience for anyone, and it often is for students at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.
A few take that awakening, that maturation, to a deeper level, however.
The Bonner Leader Program provides an opportunity for work study at community service locations in exchange for a renewable scholarship and leadership development opportunities. And, for the first time in the 15-year history of the program at CSB and SJU, first-year students were able to follow up their campus experience in 2023 with a full immersion service retreat.
Six rising sophomore leaders, including five Bennies and a Johnnie, traveled to Chicago along with facilitators Claire Lentsch ‘16, assistant director of admission, and Lucas Vetsch ’20 from Experience & Professional Development (XPD). For five days in late May, they called the Br. David Darst Center home, and embarked on multiple social justice immersion experiences that addressed five core issues: homelessness, food insecurity, education, incarceration/criminal justice reform and immigration.
The first full day included serving at the St. James Food Pantry and later prepared a meal and ate with guests at the St. Thomas of Canterbury soup kitchen. The next day they heard from members of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless about how they can use their voices to advocate for those in need and later learned about Cornerstone Community Outreach, which operates multiple shelters – including the only one for single men in the Uptown area. Some days they were in motion from before 6 a.m. until almost 10 p.m. They participated in a vigil for illegal immigrants who were about to be deported, and they visited a park adjacent to the Cook County Jail where some inmates – who can be imprisoned for years waiting for trial – catch glimpses of their families.
Through it all, the group embraced use of public transportation and walked nearly 60 miles from one location to another during the visit. After an intense week of service, education and reflection, the students went home for the summer, and will come back to campus in August, different for the experience.
“The thing that I found most valuable about the trip was that it taught me the skills to help my local community back home and at CSB and SJU,” said Ellie Rose Piette, who is entering her sophomore year as a biology and exercise and health science major from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. “We talked about seeing other humans as whole, rather than what we can only see from the outside or the tangible aspects of a person. I have grown a new appreciation for seeing others as emotional, ambitious, brave, kind, broken and beautiful.”
They used food from an urban farm to create culturally appropriate vegetarian meals during their stay.
“The biggest takeaway I had from the trip was the group’s opportunity to grow together while taking part in invaluable service,” said Emily McCarthy, a biochemistry major from Richfield, Minnesota, who is on a pre-med track. “It was an unforgettable experience and an event I continue to reflect on.”
In some cases, the students had to overcome their feelings of discomfort or fear.
“I really valued the opportunity to interact with people whose lives were so different to my own,” said Maia Mischke, an accounting major from St. Paul. “I was able to get a glimpse into their life story, offer some help for that moment in their life and appreciate our shared humanity.”
Joe Fuller, a communication major from Omaha, Nebraska, and Gretchen Gunderzik, a biochemistry major from Hudson, Wisconsin, added that they got the most value from having the opportunity to experience their own feelings toward each immersion activity while seeing their classmates do the same. Others found a new appreciation for those facing obstacles they previously would not have imagined.
“I feel like I had a lot of stereotypes around people that experience homelessness or deal with food insecurity,” said Carmen Lendt, a communication major from Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. “This experience helped me break stereotypes I previously had and really allowed me to get to know the people for who they are and not let their challenges define them.”
The Darst Center intentionally includes a “free day” in programming so participants have the opportunity to decompress after long days that are often physically and emotionally exhausting. The students chose to use their day to visit the Shedd Aquarium, take an architectural river cruise and end the night with a fun meal downtown. By the conclusion of the trip, the students pondered how they could share what they’d seen and heard during the trip with others. They plan to make a presentation to their fellow Bonners at the beginning of the fall semester so their older peers might be inspired, and the class of 2027 can hear about what opportunity awaits them next spring as well.
“I had hope that the students would encounter things that challenged them,” Lentsch said. “I have complete faith in their abilities to create positive and powerful change in their corners of the world. And it was uplifting to know when we left there is so much love in their hearts for each other, the people we met and learned from and for themselves.”
All expenses were paid by the Bonner program.
“You can’t get that kind of experience in a classroom,” Vetsch said. “I think there were aspects that resonated with the Benedictine way of life we learn about on campus, but it’s eye-opening to see people dealing with some of these issues and the circumstances in which they live compared to the privilege we have here. It’s a level of immersion that will be valuable as these students hopefully go on to become leaders in their own right.”
Piette seemed to think so.
“We had extensive conversations about stereotypes and common misconceptions about the homeless and impoverished people of the world,” Piette said. “It helped me become more aware and passionate about wanting to lend a helping hand. The opportunity I was given to go on such an eye-opening immersion retreat is something I do not take for granted. I have become closer with my Bonner family as well as the communities that surround me through the help I have given. This trip taught me what being a Bennie is about.”
CSB and SJU first-year students (from left) Carmen Lendt, Emily McCarthy, Joe Fuller, Ellie Rose Piette, Gretchen Gunderzik, group leader Lucas Vetsch, Maia Mischke and group leader Claire Lentsch paused before they began dinner service at Saint Thomas of Canterbury soup kitchen, where they not only served but also crossed the serving line to sit with guests and enjoy conversation while sharing a meal.