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A Reflection on Service Leadership

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My service leadership journey began three and a half years ago in L27. At SLU 101, I met Ben Smyth and Debbie Barbeau. They were talking about an organization that embodied the Jesuit mission and how we should all become members. I remember thinking, “Well, I came to a Jesuit school for a reason, I might as well take some time to find out what that really means.” I joined the Service Leadership Program because I wanted to be a good person who embodied Jesuit principles and I thought volunteering would help me get there.

My first couple of years of service were spent at Third Baptist tutoring the students there. The students were almost always African American, inner-city kids and so incredibly different from everything I knew. Not just because of the predominantly white, Catholic, small-town Illinois place that I was from, but also very different from the not so diverse Jesuit institution I was attending. It was enjoyable, most of the kids were fairly low-maintenance and just wanted to talk with the tutors. But sometimes I would tutor students who behaved disrespectfully or who didn’t want to do the work, and I would often resentfully remind myself that I didn’t have to be there and I would think, “Why am I even here?”

That was the beginning of when I started to question my vocation to be a servant leader. And then it happened. Not instantly, but throughout my encounters I began to experience it. At first it was discomfort. Discomfort because I was used to having an answer for everything and I was now in a place where that was not true most of the time. And then it came like sympathy. Not Empathy. Sympathy. Because I began to feel sorry for these kids. “These poor kids,” I would think. I would hear stories about their home lives, and I would feel sad for them because I believed my life to be so much better than theirs.
  
So, I started challenging what good I was doing through my volunteering. I began to wonder if the service I was doing really mattered. I often wondered if I was really helping anyone- if I was making a difference. I always grew up thinking that whatever I ended up doing I wanted to make a difference, and I wanted to impact people. However, I began to realize that perhaps my aspirations were too selfish. Every time I imagined what making a difference would feel like, I imagined how good it would feel and the praise from others that would come with it. Sure, it can be admirable to want to do good, but I realized that I wanted to change people’s lives to help myself and not those whom I served.

This was the time of my service when I really started to listen. I tried to stop thinking about how what I did affected me and instead thought about how my actions affected others. My friends might describe me as someone with a slightly Type-A personality so it was difficult for me to not to try to fix things that I might perceive as problems. Instead, I learned what it was like to simply be with others. I tried to truly put others before myself.

And that was when I began to experience empathy rather than sympathy. I began to realize that maybe my life wasn’t better and the lives of the students I tutored weren’t worse they were just different. So, I began to challenge myself to perceive the population I served as people who were just like me- we all just have different homes. It was during that time that I began to answer the question of, “Why am I even here?” I was at that school just “north of the Fox” because my eyes needed to be opened, and my perspective needed to be widened. I was there because I wanted to spend my time helping to educate students in St. Louis.

 However, what I have come to realize is that the students actually educated me. In my time as a servant leader, I have grown a lot because of those I have interacted with. I have learned that discomfort is not such a terrible thing and that those put into our lives are not there to be fixed instead they are there to be cherished and loved. We so often forget to pause in our busy lives and acknowledge the humanity of others.

I first joined the Service Leadership Program because I wanted to learn about the Jesuit mission by volunteering. I have stayed in the program because of everything I have learned about what it means to be a servant leader. I have gained an understanding of what it means to put others first and what it means to be for and with others. Throughout my time in the program, I believe I have truly learned what it means to be called to serve.

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