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Living Our Tradition

Kate Ackert traveled to South Africa this summer on a trip organized by Siena's Franciscan Center for Service and Advocacy
Kate Ackert traveled to South Africa this summer on a trip organized by Siena's Franciscan Center for Service and Advocacy

Sept. 26, 2013

I'm one of several Siena student athletes who recently made the decision to embrace the College's Franciscan tradition and serve those less fortunate than myself.

Every student at Siena is required to take classes that affirm the four Franciscan teachings: Heritage, Diversity, Social Justice, and Nature. These compulsory courses ensure exposure to themes of special importance to the Franciscan tradition. But many student athletes choose to go above and beyond their required coursework to truly demonstrate the Franciscan spirit in other aspects of their life.

This past summer, Kat Canavan '15 and I made the choice to go on a service trip to South Africa organized by the Franciscan Center for Service and Advocacy. We spent over two weeks learning about the culture, building relationships, and performing service in orphanages and hospices. The trip was advocacy based and we were able to learn about the history and rich culture of South Africa and reflect on how we can apply it back and contrast it with our communities here in the United States.

"The African children we met didn't care about what possessions they hold, and their spirits were so lively," Canavan said. "They spend most of their time with their family, friends, and at church."

Canavan found that even the smallest action can make a difference through her involvement in the Trashion Fashion shows, where students create clothing completely from recycled materials. She hopes to apply this knowledge at Siena through her role on the Student Conduct Review Board.

I also found the trip very eye opening. As a person who regularly does community service, I thought I'd be prepared for anything, but I wasn't prepared for the South African culture.

In South Africa, the end of apartheid is very young and there are still many Afrikaaners who are extremely racist. For example, there are still separate doors for black people and white people.

We immersed ourselves in the community townships and informal settlements by going into hospices and orphanages and attempted to psychologically break the stereotypes blacks had of whites, by showing we were there to help.

We learned a lot about apartheid on our trip, and it was shocking to see how cruel the Afrikaaners were to the blacks. We watched one video specifically at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg where a white Afrikaaner cop assaulted a black man, beating him with a stick. Unfortunately, this horrible treatment is how most blacks know white people. The service we did really helped break preconceived notions that black South Africans had about us.

Kat and I are far from the only student athletes committed to making the most of our Siena experience through advocacy.

Cross country junior Nick Grudev spent his 2013 Spring Break on a MAAC SAAC Retreat, helping with the Sandy Relief effort. He assisted in demolishing a home that had completely waterlogged flooring. Grudev used the example of St. Francis and the leper as motivation to help someone less fortunate because he felt it was the right thing to do.

"Our work exhibited the Franciscan tradition because we were helping a family who needed it," Grudev said. "They were definitely less fortunate than we were, and it felt great to give back."

Cross country's Moira Hilt spent her summer volunteering at a nursing home and working with kids with developmental disabilities.

"Even in just the few months during the summer that I was there I saw some major improvements in what the kids could do," Hilt said. The experience helped point her to pursue a career in physical therapy.

Softball's Mackenzie Cronin '16 had a similar experience in Binghamton this summer, working in a nursing home and volunteering with a neonatologist. She related her experience to the social justice aspect of the Franciscan Tradition.

"It wasn't fair to these premature babies to suffer the way that they did," Cronin said. "Some were born addicted to crack and their mothers were not able to help them in any way, so that's what we tried to do." Cronin's experience led her to pursue a career in medicine.

Meanwhile, in Albany, swimmer Amanda Podczerwinski '15 was doing service too. Podczerwinski was part of the Summer Service Scholar Program at Siena which works with the Boys and Girls Club in Albany.

"I`ve always loved kids, but I never had encounters with intercity children before," Podczerwinski said. "This experience helped me develop and advance my leadership and professional skills. I feel like the Franciscan tradition asks people to consistently give back to a world that has provided so much."

Podczerwinski enjoyed her summer as a camp counselor and wants to return next summer because she was not only able to impact children's lives, but she was also impacted by them.

"The kids gave back to me by teaching me to always take a step back," she said. "Whether it is on the pool deck or in the chemistry lab, Podczerwinski will be forever touched by her summer of service."

In addition to her achievements on the softball field, Melanie Kalesse `16 spent part of her summer volunteering at the St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia.

"It was an eye-opening experience to work with people less fortunate," Kalesse said. She plans on going on to Law School and ultimately using the Franciscan spirit to help those who are less fortunate than her.

Siena student athletes work hard at what they do, whether it's in the pool, on the field, in the classroom, or volunteering. By using our talents for good, we've been able to improve the lives of others while growing personally and spiritually. As St. Francis of Assisi said in his Peace Prayer: "For it is in giving that we receive."

~Kate Ackert '16 is a diver for Siena's swimming and diving team

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