An Education In Humanity

Transforming communities—and their own lives

Kevin Luna-Torres had built things before. Construction work ran in his family, and even at the relatively young age of 19, he had several years of carpentry experience under his belt. But this was different.

Two Suffolk students adding electrical wires to the bamboo frame of a new home.

Instead of comfortably swinging a hammer, he was hefting a machete in his hand. The material beneath this unfamiliar tool wasn’t the plywood or two-by-fours he was accustomed to either. It was bamboo.

These are the tools of the construction trade in the tiny village of Thanatpin on the outskirts of Bago, Myanmar. Kevin, Class of 2022, had come to this village with Suffolk University’s Alternative Winter Break (AWB) program, during which students travel to southeast Asia to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and help build entire houses from the ground up—in a single week.

“It was the first time I’d traveled outside the United States,” Kevin says. “I was nervous. It didn’t seem real. I’m the first one in my family to travel. It was just eye-opening being on a plane for 16 hours and seeing a different part of the world.”

The students’ 8,000+ mile odyssey from Boston continued from the bustling airport in Yangon, one of Myanmar’s largest cities, to Bago, a smaller city to the north studded with Buddhist pagodas, where the students spent the week in a hotel. Their travels led them through broad rice fields to the dusty roads of Thanatpin, where clusters of small houses and the occasional monastery or school punctuate deep green tropical foliage. They worked alongside a Burmese construction crew employed by Habitat for Humanity, sweating in the humidity and learning the finer points of building a two-room home for a family of five almost entirely from bamboo.

Bringing Experiences Back to Class

Professor of Government Roberto Dominguez poses for a photo.

Upon returning to Suffolk’s downtown Boston campus, Kevin, his teammates, and another student group who’d traveled to Cambodia dove into a course specifically designed to build off their extraordinary week. Conflict & Development in Southeast Asia directly connects class topics that might otherwise be abstract for a typical college student with actual people they’ve met and worked beside—people who, in many cases, have lived through the conflicts they study in class.

“In these places where they’ve seen wars, civil wars, genocide, we see how they are finding their way together for the future,” says Professor of Government Roberto Dominguez, who teaches the course.

For years, Dominguez explains, he led courses on topics of conflict, reconciliation, and development in nations like El Salvador, India, and Vietnam. Winter break visits to those countries have amplified the complex and sobering themes of his syllabus as only first-hand experiences can.

That’s how the AWB program got its official start. It’s a prime example of service-learning—community service experiences built into courses of academic study, bringing into vivid reality what students learn in the classroom.

This powerful, hands-on learning method is just one of many such initiatives at Suffolk, a university that sees community service as integral to its mission. Many of those initiatives originate in, or are supported by, the Center for Community Engagement (CCE).

Adam Westbrook sits with fellow CCE staff in their office in the Sawyer building.

The CCE’s nerve center, on the eighth floor of the Frank Sawyer Building on Suffolk’s Boston campus, is a collection of offices populated chiefly by students. Two graduate fellows, five work-study students, and an administrative coordinator round out the staff led by Director Adam Westbrook and Assistant Director Dennis Harkins, BSBA ’15, MPA ’17, who also teaches as an adjunct in the Sawyer Business School.

Westbrook explains, “What we’re trying to do is cultivate citizenship skills in students. We’re providing opportunities for them to engage in their community, to understand the social issues that exist out in the world, to understand their role and their identities, and then to develop the skills to navigate and address those social issues.

“This generation is much more interested in doing rather than sitting back in a class and listening,” he continues. “Students come to Suffolk in part because it’s rooted in the community, in the center of Boston, and they want to get out and see and experience things. We are positioned really well to provide that.”

While the CCE is central to many community service efforts at Suffolk, it’s not the end of the story. “Community engagement is spread throughout the University—it’s not something we’re just doing over here in [the Division of] Student Affairs. It’s happening in the Law School in their clinics and pro bono work. It’s happening in the Center for Diversity & Inclusion. It’s happening in the Moakley Archives. For me, what’s been really inspiring is to see how many parts of the University community involvement has permeated over the last ten years.”

“What we’re trying to do is cultivate citizenship skills in students. We’re providing opportunities for them to engage in their community, to understand the social issues that exist out in the world, to understand their role and their identities, and then to develop the skills to navigate and address those social issues."
Adam Westbrook Director, Center for Community Engagement

Teaming Up for Local Activism

Suffolk student Abigail Shobajo poses for a photo.

One of the most deeply ingrained community service opportunities at Suffolk is the AWB program’s close cousin: Alternative Spring Break (ASB). “It’s kind of an institution within the institution,” says Westbrook. “I’ve heard students say that you haven’t really done Suffolk until you’ve done an ASB program.”

Alternative Spring Break experiences are organized around social justice themes. Students in the program meet regularly for several weeks to team-build, learn about a particular issue through the ASB lens, and prepare to travel with their team, which usually consists of about a dozen students. Then, for about a week in March, these teams visit sites across the United States, from Denver, Colorado, to South Bend, Indiana; Meridian, Mississippi; Washington, D.C., and beyond.

If one student personifies the spirit of ASB, that student would be Abby Shobajo, BFA ’19.

“She’s done every type of ASB trip,” Dennis Harkins says of her. “Poverty, LGBTQ+, racial justice. She’s been a service scholar here in the CCE; she’s touched every program that we offer. I’m sure part of the reason she wanted to create something new was because she’d had those experiences already.”

Abby and her classmate Adriana Taplin helped design an entirely new trip. Centered around racial justice, it took students to organizations in and around Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Virginia in spring 2019.

“There’s so many different topics within social justice, and race is really important to me,” says Abby. “I felt like it was important to other people at Suffolk who felt unheard or marginalized.”

Her motivation crystallized into firm plans over the course of several conversations with Westbrook and Harkins, who helped her develop the idea into an actual itinerary. When considering the week’s activities, Adriana and Abby focused on the intersection of race and other social justice topics, examining how race affects reproductive rights or immigration, for example.

Suffolk students gather in front of the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument in Washington D.C.

This new trip began in Washington with a visit to Asian-American Youth Leadership Empowerment and Development, a nonprofit group offering after-school, summer, and mentoring programs to underserved and low-income Asian-American youth in the area. The group connected with staff members to learn about the organization’s work and how it benefits the community it serves. Abby and her student teammates gained immediate insight into facets of racial stereotyping that are sometimes misunderstood.

“We talked about the model minority myth,” says Abby, “a stereotype that Asians are more likely to follow rules, and that they’re what other people of color should aspire to be. It was interesting because I feel like Asian Americans get left out of the conversation about race a lot.”

Although this first visit involved no direct service to a community, it was still valuable for Abby because it helped to build understanding in a real-world context, outside the classroom. 

“I think people get very wrapped up in the idea that they have to be going to the soup kitchen or giving money every so often,” she says. “But you should just do what you can, because that’s still impactful.”

The ASB group got hands-on in Washington, too. At Thrive DC, a homeless assistance organization, the team sorted donations and helped with administrative tasks. They also assembled free birth control kits at Planned Parenthood.

Perhaps the most powerful moment for Abby was their visit to Charlottesville, Virginia, where a rally by white nationalists led to counter-protests, violence, and death in August 2017. The team took a walking tour and discussed the rally and its aftereffects with a University of Virginia professor, and met with the university’s general counsel, whose office produced a report on the racial tensions and protests that shook the UVA campus.

“After that,” Abby says, “we met Leslie Scott-Jones, a local activist who’s involved with Black Lives Matter and was around during the attacks. She gave us her insight on how we as activists can get involved and how to take care of yourself. That day was a day I can’t forget.”

“I think people get very wrapped up in the idea that they have to be going to the soup kitchen or giving money every so often. But you should just do what you can, because that’s still impactful.”
Abby Shobajo BFA '19

Connecting with Compassion

Professor of Biology and Director of Radiation Science and Therapy Jessica Mak poses for a photo in a biology lab.

As adept as CCE staffers are at helping students connect to communities near and far, they are also a valuable resource for Suffolk faculty interested in incorporating the power of service in their teaching.

Westbrook shares the story of Jessica Mak, an instructor in Suffolk’s Biology Department and director of the Radiation Science & Therapy program.

“Jessica came to us and said, ‘I’m teaching this Intro to Cancer Care class, and I want students to understand not only the history and background, but also practically what it means to do cancer care. Do you work with any organizations?’”

That’s how Mak was introduced to Christopher’s Haven, a temporary residence in Boston for children with cancer undergoing proton radiation therapy as well as other cancer treatments, and their families.

“When I teach,” she says, “I try to bring in my own experiences as a radiation therapist in the clinic. Now, with service-learning, we’re taking service work that the students do and connecting that to the class. We’ll talk about the various types of cancers and treatment, but we’ll also talk about the psychosocial aspects of living with cancer—for the patient, the family, the friend. Tying this all back into things we’re covering in class has made the course more robust.”

In Mak’s course, students perform 30 hours of service at Christopher’s Haven during the semester. In teams, the students work on specific projects for the organization, from fundraising and publicity to child- and family-focused efforts, including planning parties and outings. Back in the classroom, they process and discuss their experiences.

“There’s literature that backs up that experiential education and service-learning in particular is one of the best forms of delivering education,” Westbrook points out. “The faculty I speak to often feel like they get greater meaning out of it, because they’re having a larger impact on the community.”

“It’s a whole new, enriched learning environment,” Mak says. “One of the reasons I became a radiation therapist was that I wanted to help cancer patients. When we ended up being able to help [Christopher’s Haven], it was like the stars aligned. Everyone could get behind that and really see the impact of helping them. It’s gone really well.”

“There’s literature that backs up that experiential education and service-learning in particular is one of the best forms of delivering education. The faculty I speak to often feel like they get greater meaning out of it, because they’re having a larger impact on the community.”
Adam Westbrook Director, Center of Community Engagement

Becoming Part of the Service Family

Suffolk student Joe Piemonte poses for a photo.

Catie Botting, family services manager at Christopher’s Haven, points out the incredible impact Suffolk students have had on the organization.

“Most of our volunteers come from Suffolk University,” she says, noting that the nonprofit’s lean staff relies heavily on such support. “They’re in charge of our social media. That’s huge for us—getting our name out there and seeing what trends and making new connections. Another volunteer comes in and helps get the apartments ready. She makes all the beds. It’s another time-saver, one less thing for staff to worry about.”

Botting singles out a Suffolk student volunteer who made a particularly powerful impression on her and the families she serves—Joe Piemonte, BS ’19, and current Master of Public Administration candidate.

Joe embodies what it means to embrace community service at Suffolk. A graduate fellow in the CCE, he got his first taste of community service at Suffolk—and working at Christopher’s Haven—as a sophomore.

“I would go with my friend Steph every Tuesday,” he says, “and make dinners for the families staying there. We’d make pasta if we were on a budget that week. One of the favorites was homemade tomato soup.” He pauses and then adds modestly, “Really, Steph was the cook and I’d just do what she told me to. Then the families staying in the apartments would come in, have dinner, and have a social conversation.”

Over time, those conversations forged deeper connections.

“During the summer of my sophomore year, there was a family of about eight from Tennessee,” Joe says. “They own an apple orchard, and when I was at Christopher’s Haven, they would always have some kind of apple pie or cobbler, or other apple dessert. And they would say, ‘Please, have some, sit down with us. Just be part of our lives.’ To this day, they ask me when I’m going to come down to Tennessee to visit them.”

Botting watched this relationship unfold as well. “Joe was here for so long and offered us so much. That family kept in contact with him outside of his volunteering and outside of their life here. They come back for yearly visits, and they say, 'Where’s Joe? Can we see Joe?' To me, he became part of their family. Three years later, he still is.”

For Botting, this kind of interaction, being welcomed into someone else’s world, is one of the main purposes of community service. 

“Inside of that world,” she says, “you can discover humanity and things about yourself that you didn’t know. And it is an important way to connect with other humans, to look up from your phone, to get your hands dirty, to really experience the people around you in a powerful way.”

“Inside of that world, you can discover humanity and things about yourself that you didn’t know. And it is an important way to connect with other humans, to look up from your phone, to get your hands dirty, to really experience the people around you in a powerful way.”
Catie Botting Family Services Manager, Christopher's Haven

Finding Unexpected Common Ground

Center for Community Engagement Assistant Director Dennis Harkins sitting at a table in his office talking with colleagues.

Service fosters connections even between those who seem to share little, if anything, in common. Dennis Harkins experienced that firsthand on the AWB trip to Cambodia he accompanied this winter. Like their counterparts in Myanmar, this group of students partnered with Habitat for Humanity for a week to build a house.

“The elderly mom of one of the homeowners was living with them since her husband had died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-70s. They were the poorest people in that village—living on basically a bamboo floor with tree branches over their heads. They’d lived in those conditions for over 40 years.”

On the last day of the trip, Harkins continues, “she was trying to communicate to me in Khmer, and I had no idea what she said. By the end, she was sobbing. She knew I didn’t know what she was saying. But just to be able to look in somebody’s eyes, and really be able to feel the impact that you’re having—it changes your perspective on everything you’ve been through in your life. Our students come back with those kinds of transformational moments that make our program so rich in so many ways.”

Juliet White, a trip engagement specialist for Asia Pacific region programs at Habitat for Humanity International, has worked with several Suffolk AWB teams and attests to the two-way exchange of ideas that occurs when students work with locals.

Recounting an experience in Myanmar, White says, “This is a country where it’s common for a construction supervisor to request help from, say, ‘four men.’ And the American women on the site go, ‘What did he say?’ We get kind of triggered.”

Two female Suffolk students weaving together long pieces of bamboo to become part of the new home's roof.

Students on a past AWB trip, she notes, saw this request not as an offense or even a teachable moment, but as a conversation-starter.

“Because of the open-mindedness of the Suffolk students, they opened up a dialogue to say, ‘Can you please tell us why, in Myanmar, you wouldn’t ask a woman to do this job?’” After learning about the challenges faced by women in the local community, who are often bearing, nursing, or caring for children with limited resources, the students explained the different roles women and men occupy in American culture. The construction team was fascinated.

White witnessed the direct result of this dialogue on a subsequent trip to Myanmar. “Instead of saying ‘We need four men for this job,’ the construction supervisor said, ‘For this next job we need four strong people who like to lift heavy things.’ That had not happened on any previous trip.

“The Suffolk team’s willingness to learn and open dialogues—rather than saying, ‘You need to change your culture’—actually led to real change.”

"Just to be able to look in somebody’s eyes, and really be able to feel the impact that you’re having—it changes your perspective on everything you’ve been through in your life."
Dennis Harkins BSBA '15, MPA '17 | Assistant Director, Center for Community Engagement

Changing the World and Individual Lives

Center for Community Engagement Director Adam Westbrook talks to a colleague in his office.

The cross-cultural connections and communication that service-learning encourages benefit both those who serve and those they serve. The interactions students have about these experiences and the discoveries they make about society and themselves are invaluable. Community service demonstrably leads to better, stronger communities.

“We have some really significant problems on the horizon,” Adam Westbrook says, “things like climate change, political polarization, poverty and increased income inequality, and racial divisions. We need to figure out ways to talk about things we vehemently disagree about. Democracy requires you to work together with people you may or may not like.”

Being able to address the world’s daunting issues requires the fundamental civic skills that Suffolk instills in students: understanding your community, working with diverse populations, managing and confronting conflict, and building consensus. With help from the CCE and the University’s other service-oriented initiatives, Suffolk students are rising to the challenge.

“I want to be part of the reason why the world changes,” says Joe Piemonte. “I don’t know how I’m going to do that, but I think I’m going in the right direction. I want someone to one day say, ‘Wow, this guy really changed my life in a good way.’”

A Truly Transformative Opportunity

Suffolk student Kevin Luna-Torres poses for a photo.

Kevin Luna-Torres’ experience in Myanmar was, quite literally, transformative.

“I changed my entire major, the entire route of what I want to do in life,” he says. Kevin switched from sociology to international relations with a minor in Asian studies after his AWB trip. “I want to work in foreign policy to strengthen those developing countries. They just made a huge impact in my life, especially the kids. Being able to help them make their country better in the future hopefully—that’s what I want to do.”

Though his stay in Myanmar included other activities like tours, meals, and a visit to a village school, one moment stood out.

Suffolk student Kevin Luna-Torres holding a child in Myanmar following a week-long home build.

“The last day was very emotional,” he says. “We had a ceremony with the family we built the house for. The whole village was there. There was dancing, and we joined them. The family was tearing up, crying. I have a picture of a little girl who was crying in my arms, along with her older brother, who was probably around my age. He was also in tears. They were all just very grateful for what we did. Their home is everything to them.”

The question remains, though: Why would a freshman happily spend his first college winter break getting sore biceps from swinging a machete in 90-degree heat instead of visiting family back home or relaxing on a beach with friends? Why labor on behalf of strangers he’d likely never see again?

“Throughout my life I’ve done service,” Kevin says. “I started off in church and then in my high school. It feels good to help others. I think service in college is very important. Just coming here and going the traditional route is not as satisfying. You can get more out of it by doing service.”

Kevin is clearly motivated. And at Suffolk University, he’s not alone.

"I want to work in foreign policy to strengthen those developing countries. They just made a huge impact in my life, especially the kids. Being able to help them make their country better in the future hopefully—that’s what I want to do."
Kevin Luna-Torres International Relations Major, Class of 2022

Contact

Center for Community Engagement
617-573-8320

Nathaniel Panek
Office of Marketing & Communications
617-973-5305

Alex J. Martin
Office of Marketing & Communications
617-305-1977

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