Alumni and the Community
Oles shadow alumni for insights into service vocations
Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street in Washington, D.C., is as famous for its history as it is for its chili. The restaurant opened in 1958 when the area, known as "Black Broadway," was graced by the likes of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Bill Cosby and Martin Luther King Jr. King's assassination began a decades-long decline for the area, but the restaurant remained open when few other businesses survived.
To Merrie Benasutti, associate director of service and civic leadership in St. Olaf's Center for Experiential Learning, Ben's Chili Bowl is an icon of vocation, and was the perfect place for her and six St. Olaf students to kick-off an Interim break trip that focused on public and social service work in the capital.
"Ben's is a wonderful example of someone finding their vocation, expressed through sticking with the neighborhood through decades of changes and turmoil. What they've done for the neighborhood is incredible," says Benasutti, whose goal for the trip was to help students reflect broadly upon the notion of vocation through exposure to direct service, community-based organizing, and national and international policy-making.
The itinerary for the St. Olaf trip -- sponsored by the college's Lilly Grant Program, Lives of Worth and Service -- led students from a homeless shelter one mile from the White House to meetings with nonprofit and faith-based groups to the White House and congressional voting floor.
Perhaps most important were interactions along the way with people who have found their calling in public and social service careers. "In order for students to expand their understanding of vocation it is critical that they have first-hand contact with people whose lives mirror a sense of vocation and call and who can share the challenges and opportunities in the larger social world," Benasutti explains.
The students met with alumni who described their work in various D.C.-based service organizations before spending a day job-shadowing alumni. Bethany Birkelo '08 was matched with Amy Gillespie '88, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice. "Many of us were drawn to D.C. for the same reason the current Oles are," says Gillespie. "This city offers hundreds of jobs that contribute to the public good, many of which are available only in Washington. We alumni have a lot of experiences to share with these younger versions of ourselves."
The current and former Oles met one evening for dinner at the home of Philip Moeller '63. He is a consultant to the World Bank, and shared his expertise on domestic and global poverty issues. These discussions resonated deeply with Vera Belazelkoska '09, who chose to spend a night in D.C. with women in a homeless shelter.
"We can read statistics and percentages," says Belazelkoska, who was charged with turning off the heat in all the rooms after the homeless residents had left for the day. "But putting a face on a woman who is homeless and hearing her story makes this problem real. It is exactly this experience that policymakers need to hear about to know what they are fighting for, and what kind of impact their decisions will have on people."
Tony Olson '07 returned from the experience feeling similarly inspired: "You begin to see the impact you can have on a situation. You understand that you can make a difference."