Resilience in the Face of Dispersion – Jack Slania ’21

I began the process of joining the CBL intern team at one of the most uncertain points in my four years at Holy Cross. It was March 2020, and I had just returned home from my study abroad program in Florence, Italy after only 8 weeks, devastated by the termination of an experience that I had put so much thought and energy into. Yet, what was even more devastating than my last walk through the city or my last gelato were the people I left behind and the impending tragedy the country was about to go through with the COVID-19 pandemic. There was my host family, a younger couple and their two adorable girls, Mina and Frida. There were teachers and acquaintances. And among the hardest goodbyes was to the non-profit I worked with for much of my time in the city, named Gli Anelli Mancanti or “The Missing Rings” in English. The organization serves the immigrant and refugee community in Florence by providing a variety of essential services, such as legal aid, assistance with immigration documents, and most prominently, lessons in many different world languages. My time teaching advanced English there (albeit short) was among the most defining experiences of my time abroad and at Holy Cross. 

Therefore, when I returned and had the opportunity to apply for the CBL intern program, I went into the process keeping in mind the amazing engagement experience I had just left behind in Florence. It was difficult to anticipate what CBL would look like on the Hill this semester, but to become further involved with the program after the experience I had in Florence was something I was quite excited about. 

It was not long after that things in our country and world started to turn pretty grim. Back in Florence and the rest of Italy, the pandemic ravaged the country and its people, leaving a normally warm and vibrant society locked-up and in fear. Soon after, we here in the United States began experiencing our own shocking devastation with the pandemic, something that we sadly don’t seem to have overcome seven months later. Even today when looking at shuttered businesses, children falling behind during remote learning, or entire generations of family members no longer in our lives, it’s difficult to see anything going on in our nation without noticing millions of people suffering. And when trapped at home for the safety of ourselves and others, it can feel incredibly overwhelming and frustrating that we cannot be out in our communities helping those in need. 

This is precisely how I felt in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, when the racial injustice that had been so incredibly exacerbated by the pandemic came face-to-face with a horrifying display of police brutality on an innocent Black man. I wanted more than anything to channel my energy into tangible action, but again, it is so hard to make the decision between active involvement in our communities and the health and safety of ourselves and our loved ones. 

With the decision to go entirely remote this semester, I, like many of our classmates, was incredibly worried about what this might mean for our campus community and student body. My time serving and engaging with our community partners in Worcester has left me with a profound appreciation for the city. I do not believe that I’d be anywhere near the same student or individual if it weren’t for the opportunities I’ve had to get off of the Hill and into the city and community. It is precisely this missing piece of our remote semester that brought me the most anxiety as we began to plan for CBL. Moreover, with this being without a doubt the most crucial moment for those in need during my four years at Holy Cross, I was concerned about the ability of our student body to assist our community partners during this time.

I am happy to say two months into this semester that the CBL program has reignited a drive for justice and service in me that was severely lacking over the much of the spring and summer. This started with the spectacular Civitas Community Engagement and Leadership Institute, a multi-week program at the end of the summer that gave me the opportunity to lead a group of classmates in discussing and learning about the most pressing social justice issues of our current moment. Furthermore, the program gave us the resources to connect with remote engagement opportunities, bringing a typical community service component into the remote semesters of many of our students. I am currently executing this myself by serving in my CBL intern role as co-coordinator of an Italian language circle through the Worcester Public Library. This has given myself and other Italian language students the opportunity to meet and connect virtually with Italian-speaking members of the community. Likewise, I am currently interning with the United Way of Central Massachusetts, serving both remotely and in-person to execute the crucial community service projects they have planned this fall. Most recently, I have begun a second session of leading a Civitas group, this time meeting weekly with Montserrat students to discuss social justice and engagement in our campus community. Most of all, the time spent connecting with one another to discuss the reality of our current situation has provided me with more peace of mind in the face of dispersion. With so many students eager to learn more about social justice and engagement even while we are not all in the same setting has left me incredibly hopeful that a community like Holy Cross that thrives on the mission of being “men and women for and with others” can survive a pandemic and dispersion. 

Most of all, the energy I have seen around civic engagement, one of the core tenets of Civitas, has provided me with the greatest source of hope during this semester. During my own time volunteering and working on the campaign trail this summer and fall, I have seen an unprecedented amount of involvement by members of our generation to get involved with politics, many for the first time in their lives. It is incredible to see so many of our classmates educating themselves on voting, not just for the president but for down-ballot candidates and initiatives. If there is one thing that has acted as my greatest source of resilience in the face of dispersion, it is the knowledge that we as Holy Cross students will not be complicit in the social ills highlighted this summer. We will continue to work together to make the world a better and more equal place for all.

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