Belonging at a Private Institution Ashley Walker

Attending an affiliated institution leads to the understanding that one will learn about Catholic Social Teaching and the principles outlined there. These include Life and Dignity of the Human Person; Call to Family, Community, and Participation; Rights and Responsibilities; Preferential Option for the Poor; the Dignity of Work and Rights of Workers; Solidarity; and Care for God's Creation. After learning about these principles and analyzing one of our course materials, Laudato Si, I feel that both of these materials relate to the issue of belonging in a private institution.

Right outside of West Philadelphia is where I call home. I grew up in Upper Darby, PA which leads directly into West Philadelphia. I attended a public high school with over 4,000 students. I live in a three bedroom, one bathroom house with my parents and four siblings. I am a proud first generation college student attending the University of Scranton with a lot of help from scholarships and financial aid. I am involved and have made a lot of friends, but there is still a lack belonging that I feel at this university due to my home environment and family status.

Upper Darby is a unique, diverse place. We have trolley tracks, train stations, and buses, all a part of Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), throughout my town. Since attending the University of Scranton, I have learned that having bus stations and trolley tracks in your town is not something that my peers experience. I can see the Philadelphia skyline from my bedroom window. There are crowded roads, lots of small businesses, diverse foods, hundreds of different religious buildings and ethnic organizations.

As a caucasian woman, I am in the minority in my high school and town. I have been surrounded by people of all different races, religions, sexual orientations, backgrounds my entire life. My school, and I, proudly acknowledge and celebrate our diversity, despite the backlash received from being so welcoming to people from all over the world. The backlash comes from the inclusion of students who do not have the best backgrounds which occasionally leads to fights, threats, drug busts, and more throughout our district. Obviously, these events happen everywhere, but in my county, my school is the target for these negative events to be broadcasted in the news instead of the amazing things that we do, like our choir winning every title possible in national competitions every year or our robotics team being invited to competitions across the country. Because of all of this, I have grown accustomed to needing to prove my abilities to society. I am proud to call Upper Darby home and am grateful for the resilience and empathy that it has provided me.

Our Festival of Nations Gala!

For me, coming to a private university is a stretch. I chose this school because of the program that it offers for my major. There are very few occupational therapy programs at public or state schools. Honestly, coming here is very difficult. Financially, it has placed a toll on my family. Personally, it has been a unique challenge. Maybe it is because of my major or the people I have connected with, but I have struggled with a sense of belonging. Many of my peers and close friends attended private, catholic or very small public schools. They have their own cars, houses with more than one bathroom and rooms to call their own, the newest technology, branded clothes, the ability to attend service trips and go on spring break or summer vacations. Very few of these things are as common at home and are not things I am used to.

As Pope Francis declares in his Encyclical on Climate Change and Equality, “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from our lives or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and this in constant interaction with it” (LS, par. 139). I feel as though this quote captures one of the reasons why I, and other students, feel a loss of belonging. The environment, ‘nature’ in this context, in which we grow up in and our interactions greatly affect how we see and interpret everything around us. When there is a majority who grew up in such a different environment, maybe one similar to this, it is hard to adjust and find what is comfortable. Students who did grow up in similar environments or with similar peers would have an easier time finding a sense of belonging and comfort as it is something they might be used to.

I was raised Catholic, attending CCD and attending church every Sunday. I was not looking for an affiliated university, but I no attend a university that aligns with my family’s religious beliefs. However, that is not the case for all students. Some of my friends are Jewish, so attending a Catholic university has been an adjustment for them. The requirement to take theology and implementation of Ignatian values into different curriculums proved difficult for some of my peers. A few of them had fears that the university would try to push Catholicism onto them. However, that goes against Catholic social teachings. Not pushing religion follows Solidarity, “the pursuit of justice and peace.” Catholicism, in principles and teachings, work to coexist among other denominations. I think the University of Scranton does a good job of teaching Catholicism with the highest respect and regard to the other religious traditions students may practice. It is understandable, though, how someone who is of a different religious affiliation, like Jewish, may struggle with belonging especially at times like Christmas when the entire university is covered in decorations.

"We were protected, cocooned, catered to. A lot of kids, I was coming to realize, had never in their lifetimes known anything different." Michelle Obama on her time at Princeton

I had the opportunity to meet Michelle Obama and hear her speak to thousands of college students, many first generation and from areas similar to her, and me! This clip is something that resonates me and the issue of belonging.

I cannot speak for other groups specifically, but looking at the face of this University, there is a lack of diversity. Speaking to the occupational therapy department, there is a lack in diversity. While presenting our cultural diversity projects, a student remarked how our class did not have any students of African American descent. The majority of us are white, with some people of Filipino and other Asian descents, but they are in the minority. When considering this among the idea of belonging and after discussing this with some peers, it can be inferred that students of color or of different ethnic backgrounds feel a lack of belonging or a false sense of belonging here as well. Michelle Obama talked about this idea in her book, Becoming, and her experiences as a black female at Princeton University. In an interview, she declared “It was impossible to be a black kid at a mostly white school and not feel the shadow of affirmative action.'” This question isolates people of color to wonder if they were admitted because they earned it or so the institution could meet a quota. Having this question and not enough supports in place fosters a lack of belonging. It is important, though, for universities to embrace people of different cultures and provide opportunities for students to express their culture and learn about others. More events celebrating diversity may help students feel like they belong.

Meeting Michelle Obama!

I am an Ally to the LGBTQ+ community. I have not faced the discrimination or disrespect those who are in the community have faced for decades. Unfortunately, this discrimination has occurred within the Catholic community. People have interpreted religion in ways that place people who identify as LGBTQ+ in a position of unworthiness. A presumption that a community you are a part of will not accept you feeds into a lack of belonging. The lack of belonging pushes a person to isolate or hide who they are. Ironically, this does not fit with Catholic social teachings, specifically Life and Dignity of the Human Person. This principle states that “believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.” I do think the University of Scranton has a welcoming presence, one that may go against the above stereotype, though there is definitely steps that could be taken to make celebrate sexual orientation and gender identity further. It is very understandable how a member of the LGBTQ+ community could lack a sense of belonging here.

As my sophomore year is coming to an end, I am starting to realize more ways in which the University is working to broaden the element of belonging to all students. I have volunteered with the Jane Kopas Women’s Center (JKWC) on campus and have found that the staff and programs that they run help me find a sense of belonging. When attending the meetings for Take Back the Night, the staff was engaging in constant reflection to find the best ways for all students and members of the community to be welcomed to this event. Similarly, one of the assignments for an occupational therapy course pushed students to demonstrate cultural competence.

Volunteering for Take Back the Night with JKWC!

Both of these examples demonstrate another notion Pope Francis mentioned in his Encyclical on Climate Change and Equality; “There is also a need to protect those common areas… increase our sense of belonging, of rootedness, of ‘feeling at home’ within a city that includes us and brings us all together” (LS, par. 151). The University of Scranton is what brings us all together and the JKWC, Multicultural center, and other members on campus are trying to use this common space to increase a sense of belonging and ‘feeling at home’ for the community here. I have mentioned that I struggled with a sense of belonging, but I do recognize and see the improvements being made after under two years here. I have hope that a sense of belonging will become more fostered in me as I continue my education here.


Created with images by Master Wen - "untitled image" • Berridge Photography - "Northeast Corridor" • Alex - "Septa Sign" • Ashwin Vaswani - "untitled image" • Marco Meyer - "untitled image" • Sharon McCutcheon - "untitled image"

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