Three Holy Cross Seniors Win Community Engagement Award

Course requirement leads to 'transformative' collaboration in Worcester

Holy Cross seniors Nina DiNunzio, Jordan Duffy, and Patricia Gomez received a 2011 Community Engagement Award last month for tutoring and mentoring refugees in Worcester’s Lutheran Social Services’ Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program.

The award is given by the Colleges of Worcester Consortium to honor outstanding college and university students who have made a substantial contribution to a local community organization. DiNunzio, Duffy, and Gomez have been working with the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program since the fall of 2009.

The Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program serves children and teenagers who have been granted refugee status in the United States. Many of the children in the program were surrounded by violence, abuse, or were victims of drug and sex trafficking. All have suffered from significant hardship. The program aims to help ease the transition for these children from their native countries to life in America by placing them with foster families and providing academic and social support for the refugees.

The seniors first became involved with the program through a Community-Based Learning course, Aspects of Spanish-American Culture, taught by Cynthia Stone, associate professor of Spanish. The course is designed to integrate concepts and theories about Spanish-American culture with practical experience in the local community. In their first semester working with Lutheran Social Services, Gomez, DiNunzio, and Duffy spent more than 50 hours with the participants in the program.

“We loved it so much we kept coming back,” Duffy said. “The relationships we establish with the students are very reciprocal. I think I learn more from them than they learn from me.”

Gomez and DiNunzio are both economics majors and Duffy majors in English. Additionally, Gomez and Duffy are both concentrators in Latino/Latin American Studies and relished the opportunity to see how many of the theories discussed in their concentration played out in reality.

DiNunzio added that the most rewarding part of working with the program was when the refugees began to trust them.

“It was so hard to get them to trust us as mentors initially, but when they realized that we were there because we wanted to be and because we cared about them and not because we had to be there for a class, they finally opened up to us,” she said.

The seniors are now training other Holy Cross students who will help mentor the refugees in the years to come and highly recommend Community-Based Learning courses.

“The Community-Based Learning component is a multi-faceted type of learning and offers a priceless opportunity to practically apply what we learn,” says Duffy.

DiNunzio said that the seniors were excited about receiving the award, but were more enthusiastic about the mentees’ reaction to the award.

“It’s nice to be acknowledged for our work, but that’s not why we do it,” she says. “Going to work with these kids has become the best part of my week. The award actually seems secondary, but the kids were so excited about the award because they were part of it and that’s what matters most to us.”

The three seniors are grateful for the support they have had during their participation in program, particularly from Professor Stone and Catharine Landrigan, program director for the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program.

Margaret A. Post, director of the Community-Based Learning program at Holy Cross, has seen very positive results from the program.

“Our collaboration with the Lutheran Social Services and the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program has been a wonderful relationship. The students’ commitment to the teenagers at LSS, and to working closely with Catharine reflects the best of what we hope for in our learning partnerships: shared goals, collective learning, and making a difference in each other’s lives. It has been a transformative experience for all of us involved.”