“Plunging into reality”

Much too frequently in this world of loud music, sirens, rumbling cement trucks and leaf blowers, do we find ourselves forgetting that peace and harmony within ourselves will bring the most fulfillment, rather than that new sports car or pair of designer jeans. We can only obtain this by taking the focus off ourselves and our own self-interest, and serving others in some way.

St. John’s Campus Ministry alludes this ideology, as its Vincentian tradition seeks to “build a community of faith, service, and friendship,” through concern for the rights and dignity of every person, especially the poor and most vulnerable.

Campus Ministry “Plunges” are unique service-learning trips offered by the school in which students participate in a service week during January break, Spring Break, or May break. Students immerse themselves in the environment of the particular place, taking part in activities to improve the community, such as helping build houses for impoverished families and working at soup kitchens to feed the hungry.

“It is an opportunity for the student to leave his or her comfort zone at school or home and enter the world of the poor and disadvantaged, where they can reach out to the people who need help,” said Father Tri Duong, Director of the Plunge Program. “We live in the United States, and we feel so comfortable with what we have that we forget about the people who aren’t as fortunate. This program ‘plunges’ students into the reality of life and what is going on in other parts of the world.”

The main sites of this program include Philadelphia, New Orleans, Panama, and Lourdes, France. The trips to Philadelphia have been in action the longest, originating about ten years ago at the Queens Campus. Students work with the Vincentian community in Philadelphia to serve the mentally challenged, assist in nursing homes, and renovate and rent out abandoned homes at inexpensive prices for poor families, to name a few.

“This is a great example of where I found God all around me, in small things, big things, in the people, the children, nature and in their community,” said Junior Gabriela Garcia Juarez. “I feel that going on the plunge with arms and heart open, is the best way to live the Vincentian experience fully as it has contributed to me growing more spiritually.”

In New Orleans, St. John’s partners up with Catholic charities to actually purchase supplies to build homes, restoring stability to a city that lost everything to Hurricane Katrina. These trips began during Spring Break of 2006, soon after Katrina struck and left thousands of families homeless.

In the Panama Plunge, students divide into small groups of two to actually live within the community in a family’s home. At this site, a mere 25% of families have electricity and very few have plumbing.

“The student does whatever the family does,” said Father Duong. “He or she essentially becomes part of that family for the extent of their stay.”

Students also engage in a group project in which they help build homes, like in New Orleans, for those people who can’t do it themselves. Last year, St. John’s brought money with them to fund this project, some of which was raised by the Greek Sorority Kappa Phi Beta and donated by St. John’s employees.

“The prospect of going to Panama on a service plunge is an enticing venture,” said Junior Alex Shalan. “It is both culturally and spiritually appealing. I learned from the entire experience that God places you in situations that you are capable of handling. If you are with God, there is no challenge that you cannot overcome. On the trip I experienced feelings that I had never felt before.”

The plunge to Lourdes, France, where according to Catholicism, the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Benedict, was just launched this past summer. It is a bit different than the other three, as students work in a sanctuary and hospital with patients that are sick and dying. The patients flock to this “holy place” in search of peace and healing.

“All of the plunges are in accord with our St John’s University mission, which states that we are Catholic, Vincentian and Metropolitan,” said Duong. “These trips help us identify who we are as part of the Vincentian community, because they comprise aspects of service, reflection and religious tradition. Through this experience, the student becomes more aware of who he/she is as a member of St. John’s University.”

Because many students are interested in the program, applicants are required to write an essay, upon which selected students are interviewed. Only about fifteen to twenty students can go on each trip, all of which happen once a year, so some students will get turned down. Despite this, Father Duong urges students not to give up.

“I encourage students to participate in all the services we offer,” he noted. “A lot of students apply, and only few can go, but we can serve them in many other capacities. We have an array of programs that students can participate in, all which can be equally as rewarding.”