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by Sue Ann Rybak

Although Friday, Aug. 23, was the official moving-in day for Chestnut Hill College students, 11 freshman moved in a week early as part of the college’s LENS (Leadership, Engagement and Service) program.

The LENS program offers students an opportunity to participate in a weeklong service immersion project by volunteering at local nonprofit organizations, such as Face to Face in Germantown, Philabundance, Guiding Star, and the Sisters of St. Joseph Earth Center.

Ryan Murphy, director of service learning and an adjunct professor at Chestnut Hill College, said this is the second year the college has run the program. He said the freshmen have a “leg up on their peers because they get to move into campus early, get settled and make friends who share their interest in community service.”

“They are starting off their college career with a commitment to serving what our college and the Sisters of St. Joseph call the ‘dear neighbor,’” said Murphy, 33, of Havertown. “The Sisters of St. Joseph’s mission is to serve the dear neighbor without distinction, so recognizing that everybody we encounter is to be treated as a dear neighbor with love, respect and unity.”

Murphy, who is working on his Ph.D., said his research and work with students is focused on social justice issues, particularly issues of gender and equality. He said a large part of their work is “relationship-based service” and is based on the Sisters of St. Joseph belief that “all are one.”

Marisa Mango, a junior at Chestnut Hill College, is the LENS program’s first student leader. Mango, 20, said she became “addicted to service” after taking Murphy’s class, which dealt with issues of poverty, inequality and injustice.

Mango, who aspires to be a psychologist in an adolescent detention facility, said the students do volunteer work in several poverty-stricken neighborhoods, which initially may make them feel awkward and uncomfortable. She said her role is to guide them and answer any questions they may have about the program, campus or college-life. Mango said by seeing poverty first-hand and by interacting with the people in the community, their fears evaporate and perceptions about the poor change.

She said the service experience becomes a lens through which students begin to interpret their own life.

On Aug. 22, the students spent the day beautifying and cleaning up the Sisters of St. Joseph Earth Center and other areas of campus. They planted flowers and bushes, picked up twigs and leaves and other debris, added compost and mulch to flower beds, and set up recycling containers in every classroom.

Murphy said volunteering at the Earth Center reminds student about the fragile relationship they have with the Earth. He said it teaches them that “natural resources are finite and how they are distributed around the world is not always equitable.”

“So if we can do something small to amend that, it helps people struggling with poverty and disease in the developing world and we’re doing that on a local level,” Murphy said.

Sister Mary Elizabeth Clark, director of the Earth Center, said her role as director is to teach students the relationship between sustainability, their faith and “caring for creation.”

“I try to make that connection because there are plenty of groups that are doing [service projects related to the] environment but making the connection between our faith and sustainability is our mission,” Clark said. “By having the newest members of the community do their service here, I believe it gives them a foundation for future work on the campus and embeds the concept of sustainability.”

The opportunity to make a personal connection with people in her new community is what motivated Darby White, 17, of Pottsville, to apply for the LENS program.

“I wanted to be more in touch with my new community that hopefully will be my home for the next four years,” said White, a freshman who plans to study business administration.

White said she attended a Catholic elementary school and high school, so the decision to attend a Catholic college just made sense. White said she wanted to attend a college that would not only challenge her academically but enable her to grow spiritually.

Armon Jordan, 18, of West Philadelphia, agreed. He said his faith has always played an important role in his life.

“People treat you like you are a member of the family,” said Jordan, who has always been active in his community and church. “You’re not a number here. I wanted professors who would do more than just teach the lesson plan.”

Jordan said he applied for the program because if offered him the opportunity to meet a variety of people.

“The program offers people a chance interact and learn how to be social with people who are different from you,” said Jordan, who plans to study business and economics. “Chestnut Hill College includes a spiritual life in your education life and I believe you need both to be successful.”

For Jacob Pakmieciak, 17, of Long Island, the LENS program was an opportunity to build lasting friendships. Pakmieciak, who plans to study forensic science, never participated in structured service before. In fact, it never occurred to him to think of the service program as volunteer work: He was doing what came naturally – being a friend, a mindset that is emulated daily on campus.

As the ritual of unloading students’ belongings from packed cars began on Friday morning, Chestnut Hill College athletes could be seen helping parents and students carry everything from microwaves to lacrosse sticks.

Gregory Gornick, athletic communications coordinator, said the practice of serving the “dear neighbor” begins on the first day at Chestnut Hill College.

“At Chestnut Hill College, tradition goes with a lot of things and with athletics being a Division 2 program, part of that is service and community awareness and reaching out to your fellow neighbor, which is very harmonizing with our mission at Chestnut Hill College,” said Gornick. “It’s part of a long-standing tradition. Our athletes have always come out to help the freshmen to move in – extending their arms and meeting their future teammates and future fans, just really bringing that sense of home to Chestnut Hill College.”