The Immersions Program: How to live out your values
Charles Mansour is the Immersions Director and organizes all opportunities and education for immersion trips. Valerie Sarma is a senior program director and has been with the Ignatian Center since 2006. Kayla Wells is a Program Director for Immersions and a recent Santa Clara graduate.
In this conversation, we dive into the what and why of immersions. What do student do? Why go on these trips at all? We discuss stories of impactful immersion trips and how students can translate these experiences into their everyday lives.
Gavin Cosgrave: What are immersion trips?
Valerie Sarma: Immersion trips are an opportunity for students to spend time in a community that is struggling in some way with access to wealth, power or privilege. We work with local organizations and community leaders to better understand the reality for that community, and also understand the assets of that community. We think of immersions as being places that are struggling in some way, but those places also provide wonderful opportunities for us to learn from.
In the process of immersions, our hope is that students learn to be humble, compassionate and accompany others.
GC: Could one of you share a story of an impactful immersion experience?
Kayla Wells: Each immersion I’ve been on layers on the others. I remember being in India and going to Mother Theresa’s home for the dying and destitute. We saw the children, women and men who had been outcast from their communities. Stepping into the reality of that is pretty heavy.
We were grappling with, “What does it mean to be displaced from your community, and how do these people find love and care in their lives?” It became so much more than that. As we struggled to communicate in Hindi, we were able to connect beyond language.
I sat down with one woman and asked if I could sit with her and spend time without language. Just looking into her eyes I was able to see her full humanity and dignity. I saw it so clearly, God sitting right in front of me.
Charles Mansour: What that story points out is that the goal of immersions is not to do things for people, but to be present with them. There are a lot of projects that are oriented toward service and giving. That’s wonderful and fine, but our focus is that the people we encounter become our teachers. It’s harder to do that if we come from a place of privilege. It’s a humbling experience for us and a moment of transformation and relationship-building.
GC: Santa Clara often talks about Jesuit values and social justice, but it’s easy to get stuck on campus. Immersions can be a space to live out those values and get out of the bubble.
KW: One of the ways that we like to think about immersions is as an entryway to more, to being engaged and living out Jesuit principles in everyday life. It might be hard on a day-to-day basis, but there are ways to stay connected to our community and ourselves.
GC: How do you think about questions surrounding the ethics of going into other countries to do service and learn?
CM: Probably the most important question is “How do we justify the work we’re doing? How is it not exploitative?” We’re not the savior, but we’re also not exploiting people.
This past summer, we were in Kenya and Tanzania. There were a lot of times when it felt like people were rolling out the red carpet for us as wealthy Americans. We don’t want it to be a “voluntourism” experience, but inevitably it does sometimes feel that way.
But everywhere we went, the sincerity of the hospitality and the desire to interact with us was so earnest and transparent that we really struggled with the question of, “is what we’re doing exploitative?” In one of our reflections, students brought that up. One student said, “Why are we making up the minds of the people themselves? Have we ever heard the group say anything besides, ‘We want you to be here. We want to build meaningful relationships with you.’”
GC: What do students do on immersions?
KW: There are many components of each immersion, and it depends on where you’re going. There’s always an educational component where we meet with organizations, NGO’s, for-profits to figure out how people are responding to challenges in the community.
There’s also an interaction piece of doing homestays, having an informal conversation, having a meal with someone experiencing homelessness. Students get to meet people where they’re at.
Sometimes there are service pieces in more local immersions like serving at a shelter for the unhoused. But we always look for service opportunities that lead to accompaniment and conversation.
CM: Father Greg Boyle talks about how service is the doorway, but the banquet is accompaniment. It’s being with people. Sometimes we enter through the doorway of service and that’s wonderful, but if we stay there, we miss out on mutuality.
VK: Immersions invite you to be present with your entire self: your spiritual self, parts of yourself you might be sensitive to, your strengths. All that is invited and essential to developing who you are. I don’t think there are many other places that value that holistic education. Maybe that’s one of the reasons immersions are so compelling for students. We offer practices, offered in the Ignatian tradition, that invite students to access those parts of themselves.
GC: Kayla, what would you say to a student who’s on the fence about an immersion?
KW: I’d go to our tagline and say, “Just go!” I truly believe that immersions meet you where you’re at and that you’ll receive what you need in the moment. People are there to hold and relieve you. I came to Santa Clara not being religious at all. I went on an immersion my senior year wondering, “what is this Ignatian piece.” Going on an Ignatian center immersion really asked me to reflect on myself. It was uncomfortable at first, but it shifted the way I look at the world.
I find myself continuing to learn things about myself every time I go on an immersion. I’m not sure what my future holds, and it’s both scary and beautiful. Every single day gives me the opportunity to keep discerning that.
VS: There’s such a power in us being able to see something firsthand. It’s also about the stories: our stories, the stories of our companions and the stories of the community. Our hope is that it connects us all, and reminds us that we belong to each other.
GC: If you could send a message to every person in the United States, what would you want to say?
CM: I would say, “we are more than what we assume you are.” The more you know a person and their history, the more empathy and compassion you can have to the reasons they believe what they believe.
Across the political spectrum, the biggest mistake we’re making is that we assume way too much about each person and we don’t ask the critical questions of reflection that are required to honor each person.
VS: Let’s live out of love. And hold ourselves to that every day. And if it doesn’t happen, try again.