San Diego Intersession Immersion Makes an Impact on UM Students

Most of the month of January is USD’s Intersession. It’s typically a time when most University of San Diego students are far away from San Diego. Most students are either with family and friends or on study abroad trips and learning about other cultures. For those connected to University Ministry, January is normally when a nearly two-week immersion trip to El Salvador occurs.

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Circumstances beyond UM’s control forced officials to choose not to go to El Salvador this year, but when one opportunity closed, another was created. University Minister Maria Gaughan, Resident Minister Jesus Espinosa and Mary Beth Putz, a USD senior tabbed as a student leader for the proposed El Salvador trip, instead planned a San Diego immersion trip January 17-20 for them and nine first-year students.

“The values of any immersion in UM is solidarity, social justice, simplicity and spirituality,” says Putz, a behavioral neuroscience major, Spanish and chemistry minor, and frequent participant and student leader for University Ministry immersion trips and retreats. “This trip was the perfect combination.”

The group looked at issues pertaining to homelessness, hunger, healthcare and affordable housing. They spent the days and evenings at Rachel’s Women’s Center and Rachel’s Night Shelter, Storefront Youth Emergency Shelter, Celadon, Father Joe’s Villages, St. Vincent de Paul family health clinic and mental health spaces, the Tomorrow Project and St. Paul’s PACE. Each night, the group returned to a third-grade classroom in the Our Lady School for a nightly reflection about their day and then they slept there throughout the week.

The group prepared multiple meals in these community spaces, did art therapy projects with seniors, participated in multiple discussions, conversations, toured facilities, learned from organization professionals about their programs and services and more. Two separate visits to Rachel’s Night Shelter demonstrated how quickly students and residents bonded because friendships were easily renewed on the return visit.

“What it did for me and for the first-year students is to learn that people who are homeless and seem so different from you, really aren’t. We’re all humans, we all want to talk about our families or what we love to do,” Putz said.

The students on the immersion trip, Ghislaine Barragan, Nena McGrade, Marie George, Matt Tauer, Maribel Orozco, David Hunt, Brandon Jimenez, Daniela Camacho and Aly Rappoldt, certainly gained a better perspective about their university's downtown city.
“It was great seeing our group bond together, to see the first-years grow in ways such as understanding what solidarity is, which I think is something we sometimes just throw around in Catholicism and not really get," Putz said. "It’s about talking to the stranger on the street, to be on the journey with them. We’re not trying to fix anything. Immersions are about the journey, about accompaniment. We don’t have all the answers, but we can’t ever stop asking the questions. We can never stop engaging with others. We can’t treat people as the other.”

Putz, who is applying to be in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps program following her USD graduation in May, has been a UM immersion and retreat regular. She’s done the UM pre-orientation retreat for incoming students and served as a student leader the following year. She’s done numerous Tijuana one-day trips, both as a student and as a leader, she went on UM’s Tijuana Spring Breakthrough trip, the Search Retreat and went to El Salvador her sophomore year.

“It’s been a good mix of immersion and retreats,” she said. “This trip has been a culmination of what I’ve done in class and through the trips with UM. I’m a pre-medical student and I’ve taken classes that have really exposed me to different healthcare perspectives and I’ve looked at the disparities in healthcare. The immersion trips really bring it all together.”

— Ryan T. Blystone