Sometimes it’s hard to see education as a gift, until we get a chance to give that gift to others. Last month, 20 college students were chosen by USA Today for the All-USA College Academic team, to honor not only their academic excellence, but also their generosity in using their knowledge and talents to improve the lives of others. In this lesson we will take a closer look as at the work of two of our nation’s college all stars, and examine how their relationship with Christ helped them choose to serve others.
The 16th Annual All-USA team
Qualifying for the team is no easy task. Ten men and ten women were chosen from 602 students across the nation. Their ages range from 19 to 26, and their majors range from music to engineering, yet their stories share some similarities. An average GPA of 3.86 is proof of rigorous academic discipline. And these grades weren’t won by months of shutting themselves away with their books. All of the all-star students are involved in other activities such as sports, student clubs, and volunteer organizations.
Each all-star received trophies and an award of $2,500. Many of them are just beginning to dream of what the future will hold as they graduate from college and move on to change the world. What moves them to put laziness aside and put their talents at the service of others? For two students in particular, it is imitation of Christ that inspires them to give themselves.
Part I: Meeting material needs
Rachel Husfeld of Valparaiso University is an “Engineer without Borders”. As chapter president of this organization, she embodies the ideal of taking her education outside of the borders of the classroom, and using it to improve the lives of others. She led a group of 18 students to work in an orphanage in Mexico, learning from day laborers how to do the stucco work and installing toilets for the children.
She understands that because of her Christian faith she is called to a life of service to others. “You follow the lifestyle of Christ,” says Rachel, “and that was how he lived, a life of service, humbly washing the feet of others. This is how we know what love is.”
When Rachel went with her church on her first trip to Mexico, it moved her deeply to see so many people in desperate need and made her think of more ways to help them. “I feel like I’ve been blessed with so much,” she observed, “I have the resources and the passion to be able to help.”
Rachel noticed that it is easy to be an engineering student who does nothing but engineering, but from early on she took steps to make sure her mind was not confined within the classroom. She learned Spanish, reflected on what life is really about, and actively thought of ways to serve with the gifts she has. She found support in her church and family, both financially and emotionally.
Her parents had always set a good example for her, and encouraged her to get involved in a local youth group. Dad showed her the value of hard work, and Mom showed her compassion in caring for other people. Even though many around her were only concerned in looking out for themselves, the Christian charity she found in her family and church pointed her towards Christ. “God is the one who ultimately inspired me to service,” Rachel says.
The opportunities began to come to her, and she chose to take them. Once you take hold of an opportunity, she explained, it requires hard work to see it through, to practice teamwork with the others, and to persevere beyond the frustrations. Her group is currently working on a three-year project to design and install a windmill-powered well and drip irrigation system in Kenya. For Rachel, service for others is not something extra, rather it is an integral part of who she is as a Christian. She realizes that love for Christ and the knowledge of His love is what inspires her service. In her own words, “I have a heart for the people.”
Part II: Meeting spiritual needs
Caesar Garcia represented his country as a diver in the Athens Olympics, managed to keep his grades above average, and still found time for God. His sports career increased his faith and his service to the community. As an athlete, he noticed that many times sports players were painted in a bad light, from media stories that focused on the negative incidents, or just from the fact that athletes often don’t have the time for community service.
As the oldest of seven children, leadership came naturally to Caesar, and he used this to recruit the help of other athletes for a project he had in mind which would promote charity and other character strengths. At a local elementary school, he started a character education program based on NCAA “Life Skills”, forming his own lesson plans to teach virtues to the students while improving the reputation of fellow athletes.
Caesar’s parents have always given him an example of strong faith. Growing up, sometimes had to be pushed by his family to do a bit more for Christ. For example, he did not enjoy getting up early for Lenten Mass before school, but through this the whole family grew closer together. They would also attend weekly prayer meetings where other families would join them for evening Mass, and, after the prayer time together, all the kids would go outside to do sports and games. Looking back, he sees the value of what he received in having friends with the same values and a family that supported his faith.
His father, a gymnastics coach in Baton Rouge, had taught by example that forming children well is more important than making money. “If you can teach a child success, you’ve taught him a lesson for life,” said Garcia.
Founding and directing the “Life Skills” program was a challenge at times, especially to get all the athletes to help him, but he was motivated by a strong desire to help children learn the character traits that would help them to succeed. “Charity was instrumental. I think the best way to live is to try and do things out of love. Using charity synonymously with love reminds me that love is shown through actions and therefore takes effort.”
He had already grown in fortitude when he almost lost his sports career to a back injury. His whole life had centered around diving, and when it looked like he had to quit there was nowhere to turn except to God. The decision to trust in God unconditionally gave him peace to be able to go forward.
Charity often becomes a reflex that makes us heroes without even thinking about it. In 2002, while Caesar was canoeing with his family on the Oklahoma river, rainy weather made the river choppy and treacherous. They pulled off to the shore, but Caesar noticed that a couple fallen trees were causing trouble for other people still on the water, who were falling out of their canoes and getting sucked under. He swam over to help, pulling five kids out of the water and bringing them back to their families. His immediate courage and faith put into action saved their lives.
“I’ve had so many opportunities to apply my faith,” Caesar says, “faith that God is in control.” For Caesar, this faith is not just an idea from the classroom or the pulpit, but something that is alive and real. He knows that we see Christ through our friends and the people around us, and the little things that happen in life make our faith more real. It is time to move on from Olympic diving, Caesar decided, but as he looks ahead to graduation and career he knows that service will always be a part of who he is.
The Challenge is ours
The college academic all-star team demonstrates that by excelling in our schoolwork, we can gain the knowledge and confidence to more effectively put our faith and charity into action. Both Rachel and Caesar recall that the greatest virtue is charity, and they want to make it a defining part of their lives.
At times our school work may seem boring or overly difficult. During these times it would be good to remember some of the college all-stars and how they use their education to help others in creative and effective ways. We also don’t have to wait for college. Today and right now we are all learning things that can help improve the lives of others. It is up to us to find these opportunities and to then decide to be generous with the knowledge and talents God has given us.
There are in the end three things that last: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:7,13)
“Be assured, then, that faith without works is dead as a body without breath.” (James 2:26)
“This is how all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another.” (John 13:35)
2447: The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God
2444: The Church’s love for the poor . . . is a part of her constant tradition.” This love is inspired by the Gospel of the Beatitudes, of the poverty of Jesus, and of his concern for the poor. Love for the poor is even one of the motives for the duty of working so as to “be able to give to those in need.” It extends not only to material poverty but also to the many forms of cultural and religious poverty.
“ …the happiness to which we aspire cannot be obtained without an effort and commitment on the part of all, no one excluded, and the consequent renouncing of personal selfishness.”
“The wounds of humanity cannot leave us indifferent; we must heal, console and care for the multitudes of suffering individuals and peoples.”
” Indeed, the new evangelization starts with us, with our lifestyle. The Church today does not need part-time Catholics but full-blooded Christians.”
Saints and Heroes:
Blessed Alcuin was a man from England who brought a system of education to the empire of the great Charlemagne. Born in to a noble family in 735, he attended a cathedral school where he drew attention from the headmaster for his academic excellence and strong faith. He was given special attention in his instruction, and eventually became the director of the school. He met the emperor of Europe, Charlemagne (Charles the Great), when returning from a trip to Rome, and was asked to share his education with the entire empire. Knowing that the faith would be spread easier if people knew how to read and write, Alcuin established a system of schools connected to monasteries and churches for the common people to go to learn. He also educated the future leaders of the empire in his schools. He helped to bring Europe out of the Dark Ages, fought errors in the faith, and invented cursive writing. He died in 804.
Saint Edith Stein
Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) was born into a Jewish family in Germany in 1891. She had a great academic aptitude, and studied philosophy under some of the most important intellectual leaders of her time. Her ardent search for truth and the example of some Christian friends eventually led her to the writings of St. Theresa of Avila, which prompted her desire to enter the Catholic Church and dedicate her life totally to God. She was baptized into the Church in 1922, and spent a number of years teaching and writing. From the moment of her entrance into the Church she had wanted to become a nun, but her spiritual adviser asked her to wait. In 1933 she finally entered a Carmelite convent and took the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. As Nazi Germany became more hostile to the Jews, she was transferred to Holland. However, the Nazis invaded neutral Holland and took Sr. Teresa out of the Carmel, sending her in a cattle car to the concentration camp. She died in the gas chambers in Auschwitz on August 9th, 1942. She was canonized in 1998.
Charity – Supernatural charity: Love for God. Love of others from God’s point of view.
Human charity- Kindness, respect, and generosity towards others.
Compassion – Feeling of sympathy for the distress of others, with the desire to help them
Courage– The capacity to meet danger without giving way to fear; to have the courage of one’s convictions; to be willing to put one’s opinions into practice.
Discipline – Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement.
Faith – belief and trust in God
Fortitude – Inner strength that allows us to keep going in the midst of difficulties
Generosity — Giving freely of our own possessions, time and or talent to someone else
Humility – Virtue that reminds us we do not know everything and that God can be trusted to guide us as a good Father.
Leadership – To inspire and motivate others in their conduct; to play a guiding role
Perseverance – Trying hard and continuously in spite of obstacles and difficulties
Responsibility – Accepting and meeting the demands of our chosen duty in life. Being accountable for our actions.
- Do you ever think that the classes you have now will be useful in helping others? What are some ways that we can dedicate ourselves to serve with the education we have received? How can you use your math to help others? Science? History? English? Other classes?
- The bigger questions sometimes get put off because the answers are hard to live up to. Rachel was motivated by reflecting on what life is really about. What do you think is the most important thing in life? What does your faith say about this? Why does it help to focus on your life’s priorities?
- Did you ever think about how Christianity first spread because of the charity that they lived among each other? What do you think of when you hear the word “charity”? Why is it such a powerful virtue?
- What are the different ways that Caesar lived the virtue of charity? How many people did he affect in a positive way?
- Many of these students did not plan far in advance the ways that they were going to serve others. They just went with some needs that they observed, and then solutions they were naturally interested in. What needs do we observe in our local community, our nation and country? Let’s also include things that every person needs, no matter where they come from and how much money they have. What are some of the ways we could help with our talents, time and resources?
- Many times when we have to get up early for school, or work on homework, it is hard to see education as a privilege. What are the “riches” that we get from education that we would be deprived of if we were not in school?
- What happens if you have a lot of talents, but no generosity? What kind of person would you be?
- Write about the one need you would like most to address. Describe the need in detail, your plan for addressing the need, and the talents, time and / or resources you could devote toward addressing the need. Also include a description of the challenges you will encounter in trying to address the need. Finally, write out a specific timetable for beginning the project. Remember that the need you focus on can be as local as within your own family or as distant as a need in a foreign country.
- We cannot imitate Christ’s life of service unless we really know what he was like. How well do you know Christ? Imagine that you are in one of the Gospel passages, and you meet him. What happens? What does he do? What does he say?
- Ask students to read the USA Today profiles of the 20 all-star members and choose their favorite. Students can then write an explanation of why they chose their favorite all-star. In groups of three, they can explain to each other why they admire the different team members.
- Imagine that you are holding an academic all-star competition in your own school. On the board, come up with a list of attributes that would be important for the winner to have, and define them (What kind of grades, what extra-curricular activities, any specific characteristics?). Advanced classes can actually organize this competition, designing an application form with specific questions, picking judges, and arranging for school-wide recognition of the winners.
- Enlist the help of parents to organize a class service trip where students can be with needy people in a concrete and obvious way (soup kitchen, children’s hospital, nursing home, etc.). This can also encompass spiritual needs such as a catechesis group for younger children or a mission.
- Divide students into groups of four. Give each group a newspaper article which of medium length. Students read the article and try to identify the needs of the people involved. On a sheet of paper, they list all of the characters or groups that are involved in some way in the story. Under each character, they think of all the possible needs that person has. The students put a star by one of the needs that they could help solve. Together they think of a project proposal (hypothetical) that would address the need.
Catholic youth missionaries: http://www.ytm.org/
Catholic Student Organization at Auburn University: http://www.auburncso.com
NCAA Life Skills: http://www1.ncaa.org/membership/ed_outreach/champs-life_skills/index.html
Engineers without Borders: http://www.ewb-usa.org/
Bridges to Community: http://www.bridgestocommunity.org/
Profiles of College Academic All-star team: