Our Casa Alums
Program Officer for Eisenhower Fellowships
More than a dozen years after my participation in Casa de la Solidaridad in El Salvador, I still look to this as the most formative experience to date. I often find myself returning to the relationships developed there, the lessons of love and compassion learned, and the formidable spirit of the Salvadorans from which to draw inspiration, motivation and clarity. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had tremendous experiences throughout my life, but still none compares to the time I spent at the Casa.
When I participated in the program, I was a junior at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where I was a Theology major, minoring in Spanish and Faith Justice. What exactly I was hoping to do with a degree in theology, I wasn’t quite sure. It was my particular interest in Liberation Theology that drew me to El Salvador, but it was so much more that made the experience so formative. I mention that only to say, no matter what you study, where you are coming from, this experience has the potential to give you a foundation upon which you can build for the rest of your life – wherever that may take you.
After my graduation from St. Joe’s, I taught high school Spanish for a year before creating and managing the Office of Community Service for Temple University. I drew on many of my experiences in El Salvador to influence the community and international programming that I developed in this role.
Since then, I have completed my Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government. For the past four years I have been serving as a program officer for Eisenhower Fellowships, a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing international dialogue and collaboration through professional exchange. There I manage eighteen program administrators in as many countries, and work with some of the most talented leaders in all sectors from the U.S. and international communities.
There’s nothing I can say that I feels adequately captures the profound ways in which the Casa influenced, challenged, and shaped me. What I can say is that it continues to do those things for me thirteen years later. I can’t think of a better investment of time and energy that will undoubtedly pay off for a lifetime.
Senior Portfolio Manager at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
One of the best quotes I heard at the Casa, and emblematic of so many of our experiences in El Salvador is, “Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.” Traveler, there is no path; we make the path by walking. I think so many of us in college are trying to figure out how we make sense of our interests and passions with what we want to do with the rest of our lives. It’s been more than a decade since I attended the Casa, and I feel as certain as ever that the Casa shaped so much of my path; in ways that I was searching for, but couldn’t fully define when I sent in my application. At that point, I was majoring in accounting and finance, and while I liked the logic of business classes, it would have been hard to call it my passion. I spent my free time and elective classes trying to learn more about social justice issues and volunteering in the Spokane community that surrounded Gonzaga. There wasn’t a day that went by when I didn’t wonder how this all fit together in the long run.
Then you go to El Salvador and meet someone like Griselda or Cristina, who take you to their home, and offer you the best meal their families may eat all year. You go off to the countryside and stay with a family whose understanding of languages is that the wealthy babies of the world are born speaking English and everyone else is born speaking Spanish. You have heated discussions in class with your peers about the role of social justice vs. charity, and then you take a step toward integrating what you once knew to be true with what you now see.
Today I work for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in a role that absolutely combines my passion and my skills. A core focus of my job is financing projects focused on primary healthcare in Africa. The outcome of this collaboration is a parent being able to sleep through the night because they now know their child won’t die from malaria. It’s the woman who can now access contraceptives to plan for her family so that she can feed all of her children and send them to school. It’s the child who now gets vaccines to protect against preventable diseases. Doctors, teachers, nurses and so many other professions are critical to people worldwide, but through the Casa, I started to see that every profession can intersect with the needs of the world.
Everyone’s time at the Casa is different, but I can’t think of a more formative college experience. For whatever few certainties there are in life, I am confident I would not be where I am today without the Casa.
Brendan Ruddy and Christy Soran
Christy Soran and Brendan Ruddy graduated from Boston College in the class of 2006 and studied at Casa in the Fall of 2004.
Only through Casa did Christy and Brendan meet, despite both attending Boston College and Brendan knowing Christy’s extended family. They were fortunate to begin their relationship while at Casa and among the amazing community of friends in Casa Romero and Silvia and at their two praxis sites.
Upon graduating from Boston College, Christy and Brendan spent a year of service in Moshi, Tanzania, where they lived in community with other volunteers. In Tanzania, Christy worked for the Nshara Community Medical Center assisting in mass vaccination campaigns, home sanitation education, and women’s and children health programs.
Having discovered her vocation for medicine in Tanzania, Christy returned to the Boston area where she worked for a regional hospital network researching quality of care while also pursuing post-baccalaureate pre-med certification. Christy completed a Master’s of Public Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2010, and is currently in her fourth year of medical school at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. While pursuing her medical education Christy has had numerous opportunities to volunteer and work with underprivileged communities in the United States and abroad. She has volunteered at needle exchange and harm reduction programs for IV drug users and sex workers. She also volunteers with a student-run free clinic for patients without insurance dealing with chronic diseases. She will be traveling to Kenya in 2014 to conduct research on disease incidence in urban slums as a Hubert Fellow at the Center for Disease Control, and she is applying to residency programs in Internal Medicine.
In Tanzania, Brendan worked for the KWIECO, a local NGO that provides direct legal aid to women and children suffering abuse and provides advocacy programs addressing women’s and children’s rights at the grassroots level in the Kilimanjaro region. Brendan’s work focused on a region-wide survey of attitudes and opinions regarding women’s and children’s rights, as well as program development for KWIECO’s advocacy work.
Brendan returned from Tanzania to pursue his law degree at Georgetown Law, where he focused his studies and work on issues of international law and domestic violence. Upon graduating from law school in 2010, Brendan served as judicial clerk to the Hon. Lynn Leibovitz at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, working primarily on major felony trials. Over the past years Brendan has applied his legal education in various legal clinics, counseling individuals unable to afford representation on legal issues of employment, immigration, and custody, as well as working on municipal homelessness policy making. Moving to Philadelphia in the fall of 2011, Brendan entered private practice with the firm Eckert Seamans, where he continues to practice.
Casa has played a significant role in Christy’s and Brendan’s lives and relationship. In addition to meeting incredible and caring friends, Casa’s immediate impact was to help Christy and Brendan successfully live in Tanzania and positively encounter some of the challenges of living abroad and in communities with substantially fewer resources as North America. Casa instilled upon them the value of personal reflection and humility when approaching new cultures and accompanying the poor. Over time, Casa has provided Christy and Brendan with perspectives and memories that help them approach their respective fields of medicine and law in a way more oriented to just relationships and in solidarity with marginalized populations. Unsurprisingly, Casa has also significantly improved their relationship. Not only do they share most of their fondest memories and friendships from college, but the aspects of community living and spirituality at Casa have helped them be better partners to one another. They continue to work together in attempting to create a pupusa as delicious as those they enjoyed in El Salvador.
In October 2013 they celebrated their wedding.
David Romero, SJ
I attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and majored in Theological Studies with a minor in Business Administration. I am currently getting a Master's in Philosophical Resources at Fordham University, NY. I studied at Casa in the fall semester of 2007.
Upon graduation from LMU, I entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). This two-year experience entailed a variety of opportunities, including going on the 30-day silent retreat doing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, working as a chaplain in a juvenile hall and hospital in LA, going on a 3-week pilgrimage starting with only $30, working at a Jesuit elementary school and parish in Kingston, Jamaica, and teaching at Verbum Dei High School (a Cristo Rey school) in Watts, CA.
And so since college--and upon completing the novitiate--I made my First Vows as a Jesuit, which are poverty, chastity, and obedience. And my first assignment--what I am currently engaged in--is to study philosophy at Fordham University. While studying philosophy, I have also helped out at Cristo Rey New York High School in Harlem, as well as organized and led for the last two years a "Casa Reflection Group" for Casa alums upon their immediate return to Fordham from their semester abroad.
My Casa experience has had a tremendous influence on my life and continues to be a "fountain of grace" that I return to, from which I draw life, love, and faith. Overall, the Casa has been a life-changing and live-giving experience for me. My encounter with and accompaniment of the Salvadoran people helped me to see the world in a new way, to encounter reality from a completely different perspective, and this new, deeper vision challenged me to think and feel in new ways. My eyes were opened to the suffering of others, which I was unable to imagine before and, similarly, my heart was opened to the inexhaustible generosity, faith, hope, and love these people shared with me. I learned how to love and be loved for who you are--and not what you do. Thus, in a very profound way, my experience with the Salvadoran people and my classmates opened me up to seriously consider a vocation as a Jesuit priest.
My experiences in El Salvador also made a mark on my life in relation to issues of justice and faith. I found that I could no longer claim ignorance to the injustices these people, my friends, were experiencing and to my previously held notion that I am not an accomplice in causing injustice from afar. This realization instilled in me a passion and desire to live more intentionally and to concretely love the poor and marginalized. Moreover, it deepened the call to live my Catholic faith more authentically, with the heart of the justice of the Gospel.
Casa helped transform my understanding of education, solidarity, compassion, justice, and accompaniment. As a result, I have found myself growing in the desire to work within the world of "transformative education," to accompany students as they encounter la realidad and consider how it opens them up to new life, a life that could be about something more, something greater.
I am deeply grateful for the friendships I have made with my classmates and the Salvadorans--some of the most amazing people-- and others from the program whom I've had the honor of meeting along the way. I can confidently say that Casa is a touchstone experience in my life, and is a grace that I continually live out of!
Program Manager at UN Women Liberia
Emily Stanger is an economic policy advisor and an advocate for women’s rights, specialized in enhancing the economic opportunities of women in developing and post-conflict countries.
After reading Stanger’s graduate research on women’s role in the Liberian economy, H.E. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of the Republic of Liberia, personally invited Emily to serve as a special advisor in the Liberian Government. Working with the Minister for Gender and Development, Emily designed new economic programming for Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy to reach nearly 40,000 of Liberia’s most vulnerable women and girls. Stanger’s commitment to Liberia sparked during her graduate school internship with the Government of Liberia, supported by the NGK Fellowship at Harvard’s Women and Public Policy Program.
Since 2009, she has managed Liberia’s first large-scale programme to address economic inequalities between men and women, working through innovative partnerships between the Government, United Nations, private sector and civil society. Working for UN Women, she continues in her role advising the Liberian Government on its gender priorities, including in women and trade, women’s access to financial services, infrastructure to reduce women’s time burden, and adult education.
Prior to her work in Liberia, Emily was recommended by the Harvard Women’s Leadership Board to advise Cherie Blair, QC, on the focus and the establishment of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women (CBFW). Emily’s recommendations directed the Foundation’s focus towards women and mobile technology and led to its launch and commitment at the 2008 Clinton Global Initiative.
Emily dedicated a year of service after her undergraduate studies to serve as a women’s advocate for survivors of violence and trafficking on the US / Mexico border. She has traveled extensively across Latin America and West Africa and speaks Spanish and Liberian English.
Emily Stanger holds a Masters in Public Administration in International Development from Harvard Kennedy School (2008) and graduated summa cum laude with degrees in Economic and Theology from Boston College (2005). She is the recipient of Harvard’s Jane Mansbridge Research Award for distinguished research on women or gender, as well as Boston College’s Alice E Bourneuf Award in Economics and Cardinal O’Connell Theology Medal for the top student in Economics and Theology, respectively.
About her experience in El Salvador, Emily says: “The Casa experience profoundly shaped my personal, spiritual and professional development, and so much so, it is hard to believe that I only spent four months in El Salvador with Casa! Ten years later, my prayers still reflect the lessons and spiritual language I learned from the Salvadoran community. The women of Tepecoyo, my most memorable teachers from El Salvador, unleashed my passion for opening new doors for women and girls; they planted in me the seeds that grew into a career dedicated to breaking down economic barriers for women. In my professional work, I continue to strive for programming that learns from its participants, as much as it seeks to teach them new skills. This connection to community and respect for local knowledge and wisdom are values that I internalized through the Casa's approach to education and community accompaniment."
This year, Emily was named on Forbes Magazine's list of 30 under 30 in law and policy. http://www.forbes.com/pictures/mlj45kdmm/emily-stanger/
Jordan Country Director of Jesuit Refugee Services
Colin is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and studied with Casa de la Solidaridad in Spring 2006.
With a background in Ignatian spirituality, liberation theology, Spanish and Arabic, Colin has worked with immigrants and displaced populations for several years in East Los Angeles, El Salvador, Colombia, Kenya and occupied Palestinian territories. Colin taught Catholic Social Teaching at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Palm Desert for several years before moving to the Middle East. For the last two years he has been working with Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) in Jordan, where he now serves as the Jordan Country Director.
With the emergency of the Arab Spring and due to mass movements of refugees in the MIddle East, the work of JRS in the region has increased significantly. In addition to responsibilities in Jordan, Colin has been called upon to assist with communication and advocacy for the JRS Middle East and North Africa regional office, which oversees initiatives in Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
Reflecting on his Casa experience, Colin writes: "My time in El Savlador with the Casa broke down my notion of reality in a way that was dark and difficult yet liberating. I’m grateful for the time I had with some of my favorite people on the planet in El Salvador. It was a transformative experience, which undoubtedly continues to have impact on the way I live my life and what I’m doing with my life now."
Jessica Jenkins, JD/MSW
Supervising attorney at the Center for Employment Training Immigration and Citizenship Program in San Jose, CA.
I studied International Relations and Latin American Studies at Stanford University and participated in the Casa program in El Salvador in fall, 2001. My time at the Casa profoundly shaped me personally and professionally. I had the opportunity to return to El Salvador the summer after the Casa, and I traveled around the country speaking to women about their experiences of Catholicism, community organizing and liberation theology. I met many of them through relationships I established as a Casa student, and I was profoundly humbled and honored that they agreed to share their experiences with me. I wrote my college thesis based on those interviews and research.
My experiences in El Salvador sealed my commitment to working for social justice, and also instilled in me empathy for all those who are forced by violence and economic injustice to leave their countries of origin. When I came home to California, where so many Central Americans have immigrated, I felt compelled to focus on promoting the rights of immigrants. Upon graduating college in 2003, I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) and worked as a paralegal with immigrant elders in San Francisco. After JVC, I worked with NETWORK, a National Catholic Social Justice lobby, in Washington DC, where we lobbied the federal government for social and economic justice. I then went to Fordham University in New York City where I earned joint degrees in law and social work, with a focus on defending the rights of immigrants and low-wage workers.
Since graduating in 2010, I have returned home to the San Francisco Bay Area, where I now work as the supervising attorney at the Center for Employment Training Immigration and Citizenship Program in San Jose. Our program provides legal assistance to immigrants, who are predominantly from Mexico and Central America. We help reunite families and obtain immigration relief for survivors of trauma and violence. We also help provide temporary relief to DREAMers, young immigrants who have grown up in the United States. This year we are also organizing for comprehensive immigration reform, which we hope will bring more humanity and dignity to our country’s immigration laws. I think about my time in El Salvador constantly and am so grateful for the emotional and intellectual skills the Casa program taught me.
I currently live in my hometown of Redwood City, CA with my grandfather, a World War II veteran. In my spare time I am helping him document his memories of the war, and am also experimenting with canning, cooking and baking. I still keep in touch with many of the people I met during my time at the Casa and am profoundly grateful for all those relationships. I would not be the person I am today without the Casa!
Chris Salas-Wright, Ph.D
Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin.
Currently I live in Austin Texas with my partner – and fellow social worker – Vanessa Salas-Wright. We have been lucky to be surrounded by a wonderful community of friends who share with us an interest in social justice and social welfare in Latin America and beyond. Many of these friends are people I met while studying/working at the Casa between 2001 and 2006.
In terms of my professional life, I finished my doctorate in social work at the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) in May 2012. My dissertation research was on the role of religiosity and spirituality as protective factors for violence, delinquency, and substance abuse among high-risk and gang-involved youth in El Salvador. After having lived in El Salvador for nearly 4 years and having spent a good chunk of that time volunteering with high-risk youth and youth gang members in an addictions treatment center in San Salvador, I found the opportunity to conduct this kind of research to be very exciting. Currently, I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Brown University Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies where I am continuing my research on high-risk youth, youth problem behavior, and substance abuse prevention. I also am an Adjunct Faculty member at the Boston College GSSW where I teach “Human Behavior and the Social Environment”.
Without any doubt, my experience as a Casa student profoundly shaped my personal and professional development. It gave me the opportunity to return to El Salvador after my first visit during my freshman year in college and to do so in a very supportive environment that was designed to integrate academic learning with firsthand, lived experience. My semester at the Casa helped me to begin to make sense of what I was seeing in El Salvador on an emotional and intellectual level, and to do so in community with other college students from the United States and El Salvador who were deeply committed to exploring issues of justice, compassion, and faith.
Being a part of the Casa introduced me to wonderful friends, helped me to begin to imagine how my academic formation was of relevance to my passion for social justice, and opened up many doors of opportunities for me. I ended up working for the Casa for two years and, in doing so, learned a tremendous amount about international education and student development. Undoubtedly, such experience informed my decision to pursue a career in academia and to try to dedicate myself to conducting research and engaging with students in ways that can impact the well-being of young people and their communities.