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The Profundity of Encounters in Student Affairs

Student Success Civic Engagement Supporting the Profession AVP or "Number Two" Senior Level VP for Student Affairs
February 21, 2024 Shawna Cooper Whitehead Boston College
“As long as poverty, injustice, and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”Nelson Mandela

Working at a Jesuit, Catholic University offers a unique experience for student affairs practitioners. One such experience is the International Encounter for which AJCU administrators are given the opportunity "to consider how the Jesuit commitment to 'a faith that does justice' is at work in places beyond one’s campus."

This past December, I had the privilege of traveling to the Dominican Republic with higher education colleagues from around the country where we witnessed significant poverty, but also hope and love. In my last blog, I talked about purpose. Our purpose was to take these lessons for our own work back home.

Dr. Tom Kelly, a theologian from Creighton University, and Dr. Huascar Rodriguez, a physician from Santo Domingo, led our group to a Batey community of Haitian immigrants living without things that I take for granted (electricity, access to clean water, and laws that protect my well-being). 

We also encountered the rural community of Sabana Rey Latina, which has high rates of diabetes and hypertension in its population. While these conditions are manageable in the U.S. with medical professionals, I sat with people who lost limbs and depended on the local volunteer Health Collaborators, cooperadoras de salud, to provide them basic care and support. 

In our short time in the DR, we visited Dajabon, which shares a border with Haiti. There we met Fr. Osvaldo Concepción, S.J., who brings comfort, food, and water to detained migrants. Fr. Concepción took time to share with our group the concept of race in the DR as it relates to the ongoing challenges of the border.

In each of these scenarios, I have never felt more welcomed. Each person invited us to spend time with them and hear their stories. One young woman almost brought me to tears as she explained that although she had her technical nursing degree, she wanted to remain in the Batey to provide hope and be a role model for other girls.  

I have a new definition of "first-world" problems. The experience was PROFOUND.

Most evenings we spent time reflecting. Words cannot adequately describe the bond I developed with our Encounter group nor the feelings we experienced in our time together. The best I can do is share that I did not feel alone, and I will love this group forever. Through our shared witness, they have become family. 

While I cannot personally solve the global problem of poverty, I can share these stories with my family, friends, colleagues, and, most importantly, the students on campus. The profundity in student affairs calls us to look deep and challenge ourselves to understand the difficult. I got into higher education because I wanted to help people. Being a witness and bringing others into my experience in the Dominican Republic will, I hope, inspire others to act.

At Boston College, I get to be a part of an organization that "invites students into a conversation that asks enduring questions and promotes engagement with the complex problems in today’s world." I hope that this blog invites you to accompany me on this journey. 

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Shawna Cooper Whitehead headshot image

Shawna Cooper Whitehead serves as the vice president for student affairs at Boston College and is a member of the NASPA James E. Scott Academy Board.