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Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow Leads Discussions on Leadership, Service, and Partnership-Building

Friday, September 27, 2013
“It’s all about getting connected. Connect, serve, and change lives.” Stephen Vetter, CEO, Partners of the Americas

Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow Stephen Vetter, CEO of Partners of the Americas, spent a week at Marymount University meeting with students, faculty, and staff to share his knowledge and lead discussions about international volunteering, community leadership, and public-private partnerships to advance economic and social development.

Partners of the Americas’ mission is to “connect people and organizations across borders to serve and to change lives through lasting partnerships.” Part of this effort is at the student level through PartnersCampus, which encourages student-led, campus-based chapters of Partners of the Americas that will engage in service and development projects and strengthen and expand the Partners volunteer network.

Working with President Obama’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative (begun in 2011), Partners is also helping to achieve the goal of having 100,000 students from the U.S. studying in Latin America, and 100,000 Latin American students studying in the U.S. Stephen Vetter pointed out, “It’s all about building bonds on a people-to-people basis. Connectivity among students is the hope for the future.” President Obama echoed this belief in a speech on May 3, 2013, saying, “When we study together and learn together, we work together and prosper together.”

Why the focus on the Americas? Vetter stated that South America and the Caribbean countries are our neighbors, our natural partners, and we need to understand each other better. He noted, “There isn’t a problem in Latin America that we don’t have here.” He added, “There is more natural energy in the Americas than the Middle East, and the population of the Americas will be larger than China by 2060.”

Connecting with Freshmen
Mr. Vetter met with freshmen in Dr. Doug Ball’s DISCOVER 101 course Gangstas to Grads: The Freedom Writers, who are examining the work of Erin Gruwell and her former high school students, authors of the best-selling Freedom Writers Diary.

He asked, “When you’re not connected, what happens? Saba Hashemi, an English major replied, “You’re isolated and can become depressed.” Mr. Vetter pointed out the tragic example of the recent Navy Yard shooting by a loner with mental health issues.

He also brought up the perennial problems of poverty, drug use, and violence, and asked, “Do any of you want to lead change?” The answers included helping people better understand each other, working to stop bullying in schools; and assisting immigrants as an immigration attorney.

To be a leader, Vetter said, “You need to be a people connector – to create a web of like-minded people who focus on change.” He put forward Mothers against Drunk Drivers (MADD) as an effective example, and named individuals who have had the courage to lead and break new ground, including Jackie Robinson and Nelson Mandela.

Dr. Ball, associate professor of Education, brought the discussion back to the Freedom Writers, and the students noted that Erin Gruwell worked three jobs to provide books for her students, who ultimately wrote and published their stories with her guidance.

Mr. Vetter told the students, “A college degree gives you a responsibility, as well as an advantage,” and encouraged them to use it to make a positive difference.

The Global Village
Mr. Vetter also joined a Marymount undergraduate Honors class, The Global Village, for a discussion that included students in The Netherlands. The Global Village course is a partnership between Marymount’s Sociology Department and the School of Communication and Media at The Hanze University of Applied Science in Groningen, The Netherlands. It was selected by the SUNY (State University of New York) Global Center to be part of The Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) Project, an initiative that is supported by the National Endowment for Humanities.

Via Skype, the two groups of students asked questions. Marymount junior Karen Oliva, a politics major, is originally from Guatemala. She pointed out, “A lot of people don’t have access to technology,” and asked, “So how can they move forward? How do we circumvent that obstacle?”

Vetter replied that students can help with this. “Students can adopt a village and help get the technology to people,” he explained.

Asked how they address poverty in The Netherlands, the Hanze students noted their country’s strong safety net. Yes, people struggle to make ends meet, but they are not homeless or hungry, and they receive health care.

Expanding the Conversation
Throughout the week, Mr. Vetter met with classes and groups across the university. He pointed out, “We need long-term partnerships – thoughtful, dignified interaction with others and cooperation on how to solve problems.”

He encouraged students to be global citizens, saying, “Remember it takes partnerships. It all begins with an exchange.” He also emphasized the importance of speaking other languages to communicate better.

Catholic Social Teaching
The week’s discussion of how to address economic development and social justice issue included the close tie-ins with Catholic social teaching. Sister Kathleen Kanet, RSHM, of the Network for Peace through Dialogue, joined the conversation and gave an overview of the Church’s teaching – drawing attention to respecting the life and dignity of the human person, commitment to family and community, rights and responsibilities, addressing the needs of the poor and vulnerable, solidarity with the whole human family, and stewardship of creation. She noted, “Often it’s an obligation to serve that gets people started. However, the desire to reach out takes over.”

Dr.Brian Flanagan, Marymount assistant professor of theology, asked, “How much do we go beyond promoting service to discuss the fundamental causes of poverty and work to address them?” He added, “Policy decisions need to be aimed at resolving issues.”

Discussion must ultimately be a catalyst for action, and the Marymount community will build upon its current outreach and advocacy efforts.

Mr. Vetter remarked, “I’ve been impressed by the diversity on campus, the rapport between faculty and students, and the depth of the experience of freshmen. You are fortunate to have the Catholic teachings to guide you and the RSHM tradition, as well as a history of service. The search to create a global understanding is one of the most powerful forces at work today. We need a new way of living in community.”
The Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows program is sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges.
– Stephen Vetter chats with students.
PHOTO 2 – Mr. Vetter leads the discussion in a freshman class.
PHOTO 3 – In The Global Village class, students at Hanze University of Applied Science in The Netherlands join the conversation via Skype.