The energy this St. John’s University third-year student exudes is infectious. Working toward a degree in adolescent education and holding two minors (one in social justice, a requirement for all Ozanam Scholars, and one in international studies), Caitlin is a remarkable young woman eager to make her impact on the world.
St. John’s University (Queens, New York) is one of three Catholic universities in the United States that embraces the beliefs of St. Vincent de Paul; Niagara University (Niagara, New York) and DePaul University (Chicago, Illinois) also follow St. Vincent’s teachings. These Catholic universities focus on educating the whole person while incorporating a Vincentian perspective into the curriculum. Students receive a well-rounded, Catholic education, while developing spiritually in their faith and deepening their relationship with their communities through service activities. Vincentian traditions are incorporated into the academic teachings, helping students to gradually integrate an alternative perspective, opening their minds and hearts to different views. All students are required to partake in a predetermined number of community services hours, while their teachers often incorporate local service opportunities within their curriculum. This element of service is a deep-rooted value at the core of all Vincentian teachings.
Originally coming to the United States to train clergy and to teach in seminaries, Vincentians have always been involved in higher education. In fact, St. John’s University and Niagara University both started out as seminaries. Yet, in order to keep the seminaries operational, the Priests opened the doors to the public, hence universities were born. These universities provide an affordable Catholic education to many first-generation immigrant families. Vincentian Priests and Brothers believe all people who want a first-class, private Catholic education—regardless of socio-economic status—should have access to it. Fr. Michael Carroll, CM, Director of The Miraculous Medal Shrine, states, “Our schools are often referred to as opportunity schools. I remember being at an event on Ellis Island, where I was surrounded by bishops from Ireland asking me, ‘What type of people go to your school? Do the Kennedys go to your school?’ I laughed saying, ‘No, our schools are opportunity schools. They are not schools for people who have made it, but for people who are on their way to becoming someone.’”
Caitlin is one of those students who is becoming someone exceptional.
The purple streaks that flow subtly through Caitlin Capri Neier’s (’20) hair, pictured to the right, are revealed as she animatedly moves her head and hands describing what it was like building classroom walls for four different Indigenous communities in Ecuador. Calling it a “beautiful and enriching experience,” this is just one of the many Ozanam Scholars Program service stories she holds close to her heart.
Since St. John’s embraces the charism of St. Vincent, students are exposed to a particular Vincentian character with a focus upon the poor. This Catholic institution works to incorporate community service opportunities as integral parts of the education process. A concerted effort was made in the 1990s to develop a program that effectively combines Catholic academics and the Vincentian charism. Engaging faculty as catalysts for implementing this innovative curriculum required educating them. As a result, Sr. Margaret John Kelly, a Daughter of Charity, developed the Vincentian Center for Church and Society (VCCS). Currently, run by Fr. Patrick Griffin, CM, the VCCS hosts educational events for faculty and the local community to facilitate research opportunities, cultural programs, and discussion groups throughout the year in order to spread the Vincentian spirit and traditions.
Fr. Griffin believes, “One of the greatest resources of a university, particularly a Catholic university, is its faculty, not only to the students but to the wider community. To make use of the resources of the faculty and use their knowledge and insight for different programs is our greatest asset. The faculty helps out because they are connected to the mission of the university. When I need to run a program, I find it very easy to get faculty who are willing to collaborate with me.”
In 2007, the Office of University Mission developed the Vincentian Mission Certificate (VMC) program, which allows full-time faculty members the opportunity to participate in a 16-month professional development program. The VMC is meant to “empower administrators to live the Vincentian mission as mission leaders and is meant to bridge the gap between a theoretical understanding of the Catholic and Vincentian mission and its practical application to today’s society.”
Dr. André McKenzie, Vice Provost for Academic Support Services and Faculty Development and Adjunct Associate Professor, was one of the first people to volunteer to participate in the VMC program. An educator at St. John’s University for 32 years, Dr. McKenzie is very thoughtful and deliberate in the words he uses when discussing Vincentian traditions: “Being from Chicago, I was a die-hard DePaul University basketball fan. I had no idea there was an actual person behind the name DePaul.”
Reflecting on the VMC experience, he explains, “It is one of the best experiences I have ever had. It is an evolutionary process where you have me, a kid from Southside Chicago, not Catholic, not knowing who [Vincent] de Paul was other than they were amazing at basketball and now, three decades later, I am a facilitator for Vincentian mission workshops. I never would have thought that when I started in August of 1986. I have a greater closeness to this mission, and what it is all about.”
Unfamiliar with the Vincentians and their beliefs when she first arrived in 2016, Caitlin reflects on how from year to year she noticed the Vincentian perspective silently emerging into her regular studies. Connecting the dots on how her studies could be influenced through a Vincentian lens, she saw education and service as necessities to be incorporated in everyday life.
“It hits you in the face, but it is a really good thing,” admits Caitlin. “It almost takes over your life in a way. It makes you a new person. Maybe not a new person, but there is a new form of you that you’ve never seen before, and it’s a new Caitlin that I am definitely going to put into action.”
Dr. Charles Clark, Professor of Economics and Chair of the Economics and Finance Department, explains how he integrates the Vincentian perspective into his classrooms. “We are taught to help the poor because Jesus told us to do so. St. Vincent de Paul also taught us to help the poor but to help them become self-sufficient, so they are no longer poor. I challenge my students to understand this through their service at soup kitchens, and to question ‘Why do these people keep coming back here?’ It helps them delve deeper into the economic side of the situation that exists and try to find a realistic solution.”
When speaking with Caitlin, faculty, and other students at St. John’s University, it is hard not to get bit by the Vincentian bug. What makes these schools unique is that being Catholic is not a requirement for being Vincentian. It is the Vincentians’ commitment to Catholic academic excellence and the passion to educate the whole person that defines Vincentian higher education institutions.
When she graduates, Caitlin hopes to work at a New York, inner-city public school to help restore students’ dignity to those who may feel lost and forgotten by an overwhelming school district. She states confidently, “I feel I have a responsibility to take what I have learned and what I have experienced through service and put that knowledge into action.”
OZANAM SCHOLAR PROGRAM
The word “opportunity” is one that frequently pops up when referencing these Vincentian-sponsored, Catholic educational institutions. Fr. Carroll recognizes that, “Vincentians often provide options to those who may not have as many resources available to them.”
The Ozanam Scholar Program afforded Caitlin with an opportunity that she could not pass up. Ironically, Caitlin was originally waitlisted for St. John’s University and ended up committing to another university in New York. Shortly thereafter, a spot in the Ozanam Scholars Program became available, and Caitlin knew she had to take full advantage of this special learning experience.
The program provided she never imagined were possible. She studied abroad in Rome, Italy, her sophomore year. A memory that stays with her during this particular semester abroad was when she volunteered at a refugee home for single mothers and children fleeing from war zones. She worked with young children teaching them English. She laughs saying, “Here I am with these children who mostly speak Arabic, trying to teach them English, while we are both learning Italian. I was with this one little four-year-old girl, who had been badly burned on her feet and as a result was wearing two hospital boots on each leg. She was running around without a care in the world trying to ride a bike. I remember thinking, ‘This little girl has been through so much pain, but she is still so happy.’ Seeing her come from such a hard place but still smiling and laughing, brought me so much happiness.”
The Vincentian Priests and Brothers continue to grow and develop their institutions but, more importantly, remain steadfast in providing all who are interested, the chance to receive a faith-based, service-driven, and first-class educational experience.