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Vincentian Scholars Andrew Passow and Katrina Belcastro received their honor cords from the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., Niagara University president, during the Vincentian Heritage Convocation..

Niagara University’s Vincentian Scholar Program Forms Leaders
in the Tradition of St. Vincent de Paul

Twelve years ago, Niagara University launched the Vincentian Scholars program. Envisioned and realized through the generosity of the Glynn family, the elite four-year scholarship program was established to create a new generation of leaders in the Vincentian tradition academically, practically, and spiritually. Scholars are mentored in the way of St. Vincent de Paul, who devised innovative methods to change systems that produced and perpetuated marginalization. Throughout the program, scholars examine social problems through the dual lens of race and equity and produce research or projects for actionable social change as they develop the integrity and responsibility necessary to work side by side with community leaders.

Administered by the university’s Rose Bente Lee Ostapenko Center for Race, Equity and Mission, the program differs from traditional volunteer programs. Instead of engaging in short-term volunteer  activities like food drives, Vincentian Scholars are placed at two separate sites—one for the first two years and one for the second two years—and serve between 50 and 60 hours per semester. They develop a relationship with the organization and gain a deep understanding of the social justice issues affecting the community.

“It’s an immersive experience for scholars,” said Dr. Rolanda L. Ward, director of the Vincentian Scholars program, associate professor of social work, and endowed faculty director of the Ostapenko Center. “They listen and learn about the social justice issue their assigned organization addresses and work with key stakeholders to plan and implement meaningful projects that address injustice.    

“The students are not there to change anything or offer solutions,” she added. “They are there to work in the trenches and see firsthand the inequities of the community.”

Students are matched to the organizations and experiences based on their interests and skills. Placement sites include the Niagara Falls Housing Authority; Heart, Love & Soul; Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center; Pinnacle Community Services; Mt. St. Mary’s Neighborhood Health Center; and Community Missions of the Niagara Frontier, Inc.

“The Vincentian Scholars program provides us a chance to put talented young people that are committed to service to work in our programs,” said Christian Hoffman, vice president of public relations and development at Community Missions. “Working with the scholars provides our staff to gain unique perspectives and to incorporate skill sets that may not typically be available to us, and those receiving our services benefit from the work they do, either directly or indirectly. For example, when we noticed an increase in demand in our pantry, a scholar developed a survey to determine why, and enlisted the NU Social Work Club to administer the survey. He then got help on campus analyzing the results, which informed our program design. This is just one example of how this partnership benefits us all!”

For the next two years, freshman Ni San, a nursing major from Amherst, N.Y., will be working with first-time community partner Jewish Family Services of WNY to assist and advocate for refugees and immigrants who have just arrived in the United States. “This interests me since I'm also a refugee, and I want to help them since I’ve experienced it myself, and I want it to be better than it was before,” she said.

Hannah Cukierski is a sports management and communications double major from Niagara Falls, Canada, who will be assisting with the Packard Court Community Center After School Program. She is looking forward to “building strong connections with those I'm volunteering with and have a lasting impression on those I’m helping,” she said.

In addition to the service and academic requirements, which include maintaining a 3.0 cumulative grade point average, scholars must also meet several Vincentian requirements. These include participating in one of the university’s NOAMS (formerly BASIC) service immersion trips and attending a weekly  book discussion group. This year, scholars will read “Toxic Charity: How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It,” by Robert D. Lupton and “Laudato Si : On Care of Our Common Home,” the second encyclical of Pope Francis.

“The weekly book club is motivational,” said sophomore Samaya Vails, a criminal justice major from Niagara Falls, N.Y. “We are able to express our faith in Jesus through the readings and discussions. One thing I love about the book club is its revelation that the children of God are different in their own ways, yet when we came together, we are formed into one path, which is Jesus Christ.”

The discussions also offer time for scholars to ask for prayers during “prayer and praise reports,” said Dr. Ward. Although they do not have to practice a faith tradition, scholars should be “open to prayer and to the idea of how faith calls them to serve, be involved in social justice issues, and advocate for racial justice.” 

Throughout their four years in the program, Vincentian Scholars are guided by mentors, members of the NU community who meet with them each month to review their progress and assist with any challenges they may be facing. In their senior year, they work with their mentors to complete and present a capstone, which provides an opportunity for the scholars to reflect on their experience and, if they choose to do so, develop a project based on that experience.

Ultimately, the program is intended to form leaders who will go into their community and effect meaningful change to better the lives of those in the margins of society. Tracy Schmidt, ’14, a member of the very first cohort of Vincentian Scholars, did just that. Initially enrolled at Niagara as a biology major, her experience serving meals and demonstrating healthy food recipes at Heart, Love & Soul, a not-for-profit hunger-relief and social care agency in Niagara Falls, inspired her to pursue a major—and a career—in social work, instead.

“My work as a scholar stoked my passion for human service and gave me the opportunity to learn about the local community and give back in some uniquely intensive ways during my college education at Niagara,” she said. Today, as program director of Heart, Love & Soul, she is continuing that work, as she serves those who are sometimes invisible, feeds those who seek a meal, and comforts those who yearn for a listening ear .