The summer before my junior year, I had the opportunity to embark on the first student pilgrimage to Le Puy, France, hosted by the Association of Colleges of Sisters of St. Joseph (ACSSJ). I use the word “pilgrimage” as distinct from the typical higher education “study abroad” experience, because alongside the commitment to embrace French culture, our pursuit to grow as thoughtful and service-driven student leaders remained essential. The trip to Le Puy represented a kind of homecoming: a group of students from nine different higher education institutions across the United States bearing witness to the origin story of their institutions’ original founders, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ). In 1650, these six dynamic women joined together in the city of Le Puy and began a legacy grounded in service to the community. After the sisters traveled to the United States in the 1800s, their advocacy for women’s economic empowerment and leadership led them to open high schools and colleges across the country, anchored and continued today by members of the CSJ.
As a student away from the familiarity of a classroom, this unique learning experience, three hundred years in the making, felt like an exciting challenge to traditional models of academic research. The walking tours and cultural reflections each day were led by current Sisters of Saint Joseph and others who carry on the work of the six original sisters. Our group, representing a variety of backgrounds, academic majors, and professional interests, was tasked with learning about the role of social justice in education and bringing some of the essence of Le Puy back to campus through our intellectual scholarship, outreach, and mentorship. The implications of providing a space for students to interact with history in such a direct way expands the possibility of what higher education represents. To walk on the same cobblestone streets as the women that left their homes in sixteenth-century France to educate and empower young women across the world embodies the exact intentions of an interdisciplinary experience. Questions about how women were educated in the sixteenth century, how they were treated, or if women’s universities are still significant today were answered with thoughtfulness and attention to our modern perspective.
But beyond geography and time, we learned that the pursuit of education through the lens of the CSJ has always been, at its core, about community and collaboration. Many sisters living today use their positions as university presidents and nonprofit organizers to support students in endeavors that address homelessness, food scarcity, and gender-based violence, all through the lens of policy and local advocacy. Sharing meals with students from different backgrounds and brainstorming ways to use our experience to impact lives on campus allowed us to become active participants in the living history of higher education. Being in a context that embraced diversity, inclusion, historical reflection, and a vibrant call to action to continue the legacy of service was a powerful lesson in civically engaged and humanistic leadership, beyond what I might have received in the classroom.
Now a rising senior, I use what I learned on the pilgrimage to continue the conversation about the value of women’s education and engaging with the community. As a full-time student in the psychology department at Mount Saint Mary’s University, my main goal is to integrate my academic studies with the on-the-ground work of understanding social systems and connecting with people to improve lives. For example, I serve as the campus ambassador for the Center for the Advancement of Women, a crucial resource for fostering positive relationships between students and faculty. In this role, and using the experience I gained in Le Puy, I organize workshops and programs, inviting STEM and liberal arts majors alike to engage with real-world issues that affect women every day. Connecting seemingly dissimilar students to advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment or help research an economic issue that has roots in gender inequity both send the message that college is meant to be collaborative and represent all pathways. These opportunities to bridge divides in pursuit of community justice remind us to operate with a daring spirit and an intention to uplift others on the journey to learning something new.
Whether through experiences abroad or in on-campus advocacy, higher education has the tremendous potential to introduce students to new people, ideas, and worlds. It equips us with valuable skills like empathetic and collaborative leadership. My idea of leadership is a commitment and a dedication to creating a positive space for growth. Leaders are initiators and can often become catalysts for social change that affects communities for generations to come. Through my journey to Le Puy and going back in time to understand the women who founded my university, their framework of approaching higher education with compassion and an urgency for justice has strengthened my intellectual reach and redefined what it means to be a leader.