In 2013, I stepped into the home of the Flores family in the Brightwood neighborhood of northern Washington, D.C., for the first time. As a freshman, I was new to the city and had some tutoring experience under my belt from high school, as well as a work-study award in my financial aid package. I did not want a job at Lauinger Library or swiping cards in Harbin Hall because I knew I needed a break from being on campus. When I found out about the D.C. Schools Project, I knew I had to jump at the opportunity of becoming an English as a second language tutor, thus beginning my journey with the Center for Social Justice, the Flores family and other communities around the country that I would never have imagined encountering.
While tutoring Jenny*, a high schooler who had recently moved to Washington, D.C., from El Salvador, I had the privilege of learning about her unique narrative as an immigrant. It was from my personal relationship with her that I saw a glimpse of the challenging lives that newly arrived, Central American youth lead in Washington, D.C.
Jenny’s trust in me as a tutor was one of the greatest gifts I could receive. All I could give in return were English lessons and a glimpse into my life as well. These tutoring sessions with Jenny humbled me, and my experience with DCSP made me attached to the principle of immersion-based service throughout my past three years at Georgetown. I went on to serve as a DCSP coordinator, participate in two Alternative Breaks Program trips in New York and Mississippi, and co-lead the Kino Border Immersion trip in Arizona last spring.
None of this would have been possible without the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this January. This marks a period of tremendous growth and success for the organization. As the CSJ celebrates this accomplishment over Homecoming Weekend, Georgetown alumni will be coming back to the Hilltop to reflect on their time as past participants in CSJ programs, how it has progressed and in what direction it will continue to grow. With over 35 student-run organizations and 10 programs under its wing, the CSJ touches the lives of Georgetown students through a mission of service that values community immersion and research.
The CSJ is a gateway for students to go beyond the Hilltop and discover the issues that surround our greater community. Georgetown students hailing from various backgrounds are able to come together, united in service, and learn about the people that surround our local D.C. area as well as other communities spanning across the United States. Whether it be through teaching in D.C. public schools over the summer, taking a spring break trip to learn about poverty in Appalachia or serving on Community Day, Georgetown students not only have the opportunity to serve, but also to learn and reflect.
My time participating in CSJ programs has pushed me to think critically about the causes of poverty and inequality. Spiritually, I have grown by reflecting, in the Jesuit tradition, on my place in this world and the contexts that surround my daily life. I will always remember CSJ Executive Director Andria Wisler’s speech during my first general meeting as an ABP leader in May 2015, during which she emphasized the importance of valuing the intrinsic merits of service instead of viewing it solely as a stepping stone for a career or as a “resume builder.”
Through this philosophy, the CSJ encourages students to develop a sense of individuality, to think critically about the challenges society faces and to let service become an integral part of their lives rather than a way to receive external validation.
The CSJ is an organization that values “first steps,” meaning it encourages students and members to step outside of their comfort zones for the sake of service and a greater good. Thanks to the CSJ and the people I have met there, I have taken first steps outside the “Georgetown bubble” into communities I otherwise would never have known. By providing students with the opportunity to step into an unfamiliar place, the CSJ contributes to the Georgetown tradition of cultivating “men and women for others.”
Jenny’s name changed to protect confidentiality.
Sofia Vargas is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.
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