To create a community of Latino students at the University of St. Thomas who will become the future leaders in their communities, the Latino Leadership program requires that students participate in monthly service to the larger Latino community, demonstrate academic success in the classroom and give attention to their spiritual formation. “The mission of the program is both to provide an opportunity for the students to acquire skills in their chosen profession and to understand their profession in terms of vocation to the Latino community,” begins Laura Stierman, the program’s director. “It is in community service that the students are able to demonstrate their acquired leadership skills which have been infused through their intellectual and faith lives.”
The community service aspect has been filled for the past three years by a collaboration between Catholic Studies and St. Stephen’s parish in Minneapolis. St. Stephen’s is a predominately Latino parish 20 minutes west of the university. Father Joseph Williams, pastor of St. Stephen’s, is grateful for the collaboration. “We are enormously blessed to have the Latino Leadership students serving at St. Stephen’s. Our parish has experienced tremendous growth in the last several years. The Latino community, in particular, has flourished. The number of Latino students in our faith formation program has grown from 50 to 250. ‘The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few.’ Never have these words of Jesus rung more true in my priestly ministry than in our mission with the Latinos in south Minneapolis. The harvest has indeed been abundant, but we soon discovered as a church that we lacked the internal resources to match the growth. In particular, we had difficulty finding educators for our confirmation-age youth. It takes more than good will to connect with young people and to inspire them in the ways of faith. There is something of a ‘charism’ needed for this kind of work that parents often lack.”
Alexandra Castano and Brandon Miranda, both seasoned second-year catechists, thoroughly enjoy the challenges of teaching confirmation. “The high school students are interested in their faith but not necessarily through rote memorization of terms and ideas. They want the relationship but not always the knowledge that accompanies a healthy relationship. Our task is to enter into a role-model relationship with them based on our mutual faith and get them to want to know the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the faith. It is a challenge, to be sure,” writes Castano. Miranda agrees, “The students seem to evaluate us as people rather than their teachers. I have gotten so many questions about who I am personally, and I find that is where they listen the most. They see that we are happy, fun, energetic people who also live out our faith. It is in that personal connection with the students that they grow to understand that being Catholic in our generation doesn’t mean that we are deprived of fun, but rather it gives an opportunity to seek the truest happiness that exists!”
According to Jen Smeby, coordinator of adult formation and marriage preparation, St. Stephen’s population is mainly comprised of immigrant families with children. “Our children are bicultural. The majority were born in the United States and currently attend schools in the area.” The need for positive role models was instrumental in the collaboration. Smeby elaborates, “Our decision to team with the UST Latino students was based on the need of the Latino youths of our parish to have solid role models and people their own age who can identify with their struggles. The UST students demonstrate that pursuing a higher education degree is possible for the Latino youth. We are very grateful for the UST students’ participation. The hope is that one day some of our youth will join the UST ranks and come back to teach their fellow parishioners.” Father Williams adds, “When Catholic Studies proposed a partnership with the Church of St. Stephen, we saw it as the hand of God. The presence of the Latino Leadership students during these last two years has transformed our confirmation program. For many of our confirmation students, it is the first time they have seen a Latino young adult actively and intelligently live their Catholic faith. If it felt three years ago like we were filling gaps, it feels today like we are making disciples.”
For senior Angel Riera and freshman Nicolas Gutierrez, the program provides an opportunity for these students to see others with Latino heritage pursuing higher education. Riera notes, “As Latino Leaders, we set an example for how to live out our faith while pursuing a higher education. The students are always eager to learn about our personal lives to feel a sense of ‘connectedness.’ The difficulties they encounter in school and society are foreshadowed in catechism. In class, we share stories and discuss matters of faith, the importance of God in our lives, education and anything personal they seek to address. Our goal is to promote student achievement and preparation for a better society by fostering educational excellence and ensuring the kids are spiritually educated in their faith. The students identify with me as a part of their Hispanic community and someone with whom they can share their experiences. By the end of each class, the students are excited to one day enroll in a college and help make a difference in their community.”
As a native Texan, Gutierrez doesn’t allow the difference in cultural/familial experiences to get in the way of urging his students to contemplate college. “I feel we have a lot to offer since we all come from different parts of the country and different walks of life. We try to add our personal experiences with college life to each lesson in hopes that it will potentially enhance their confirmation experience and conversion.” To read a firsthand account of the Latino Leadership program see Alexandra Castano’s Catholic Studies blog: http://blogs.stthomas.edu/cathstudies.
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