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Father Dorian Llywelyn: Rediscovering the Heart of Santa Clara

Father Dorian Llywelyn joined Santa Clara as the director of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education in 2016. Originally from Wales, he has lived in eight different countries and visited over 30 others. He speaks several languages including Spanish, French, Indonesian and colloquial Arabic, and has researched the intersection of faith, culture and nationalism.

Selected Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: What were your career plans in college?


Dorial Llywelyn: Not this! When I was in college, my plan was to be a TV journalist, and I worked on the student newspaper. There was a training course in the BBC which I applied to, and there were 11,000 applicants. I got down to the final seven, then they selected five and I wasn’t one of them. I wasn’t willing to give up TV journalism, but I thought it would be good to get some life experience, so I applied to and was accepted to the British equivalent of the Peace Corps. I never got the journalism plans back on track after that.


GC: Were there any moments or experiences in the Peace Corps that shaped you?


DL: I spent two years in rural Egypt and was in a very poor university; I had to buy my own chalk. I remember getting of the plane in Cairo, and thousands of people were all over the place—it was an exciting place to be. I think living in places of economic disadvantage really shaped how I look at the world.


When I came back to Wales after two years, one thing I was not prepared for was reverse culture shock. When you’ve been away and you return to your own culture and you realize that something has shifted, you can’t really communicate it to the people you’re with because they haven’t changed, but you have internally.


I reapplied [to the Peace Corps] and then spent almost four years in Indonesia. Out of the eight countries I’ve lived in, Indonesia is the country where I made the most strenuous efforts to really acculturate into the society. My Arabic is okay—I can get through lunch and ask for directions. With Indonesian, I got to the point where I could think in Indonesian and pass for Indonesian over the phone. It was also my first encounter with cultural exclusivity, in the sense that I tried to work hard to make myself sympathetic to the local culture and learned a lot about it. But I got to the point after about three years where I realized a subtle glass ceiling, and I was about as far up as I could go. That has made me aware of cultural issues, and what it means to be an immigrant in a culture.


GC: What programs should students be aware of in the Ignatian Center?


DL: At the Ignatian Center, we like to think of ourselves as the heart and soul of Santa Clara. What is distinctive about Santa Clara University? We’re a Jesuit University, and we’re in Silicon Valley—those are our two competitive advantages. Part of our role is to show what Jesuit education looks like: that includes academic and social justice components.  


The first program that students are going to encounter is probably immersions. We now have 17 local, national and international sites. The other way people encounter us is the Experiential Learning for Social Justice courses. Something like 85% of students [who take ELSJ’s] take them through the Ignatian Center. We have an extensive network of community partners and local social service organizations. We’re the brokers between the campus and the community.


If I’m honest, I think the biggest “ah-ha” moments for students come in immersions. You can talk about social justice or poverty in class, but it’s very difficult. It’s much harder to ignore someone than something. It’s that face-to-face encounter which is important. We have to invest in ourselves before we can make an impact.


I wonder if in the long-term, it’s better just to learn from these people and just do the humble, quiet, patient work of being with them, watching and talking. I often think the success of students of the immersion program is what happens when they come back. Do they live their lives differently?


GC: I went on a trip to Oakland this past December, and I loved how many different non-profit organizations we visited. I was expecting some type of service component, which we did have, but I was excited to see so many passionate people leading these organizations. What would you tell as student who is on the fence about applying for an immersion trip?


DL: Do it! You’re never going to know what it’s like until you try. It’s putting yourself out there. Santa Clara has many good things, and one thing we’re not good at is that we’re a bubble. [Immersions] help burst the bubble and get us out into different realities.


GC: In 2010 you published the book “Towards a Catholic Theology of Nationality” about the intersections of national identity and religion. What are the key takeaways and would you want to add anything today, eight years later?


DL: In the last eight years, we have realized that nationalism is far from a spent force, and that religion is a powerful personal ability that you can’t ignore. I would write the same book again, but I would sharpen up the implications of why it’s important to think about these questions.


We live in a world which nationalism has far from gone away, and [we’ve learned] that a sense of national pride and identity is a facet of globalism. As globalization makes us aware of a bigger world, people also want the security of an “in” group. Just as we have to be politically literate, we also have to be religiously literate.


GC: If a student wants to be a global citizen, what steps could they take?


Read, talk to people, keep your eyes open. Travel helps tremendously. I always encourage students to do study abroad. We have Jean Donovan Fellowships over the summer, and some student go on their own personal immersion. I hear wonderful stories from student who come back, and I know those experiences will be beneficial in who they become in their lives.

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