International Spotlight: From student to server

Amy Sobolewski's VISION trip took her to Venezuela last January. She served as one of the leaders on the trip.

International Spotlight: From student to server

By Mara Kaufman

“Why would you come here?”

It’s a question UST senior Amy Sobolewski was asked many times during her last J-Term with St. Thomas. It wasn’t that she was failing math or didn’t know how to write a college paper. In fact, instead of taking a class at St. Thomas, Sobolewski helped lead a group of St. Thomas students on a three-week VISION trip to Venezuela.

Volunteers in Service Internationally or Nationally has been a component of Campus Ministry at St. Thomas since 1987.   VISION focuses on, among other things, service, justice issues and intercultural exchange, linking groups of St. Thomas students with J-Term and spring break service sites across the globe.

“I just sort of fell into it,” Sobolewski says of her involvement with VISION. Contemplating what she wanted for her birthday the spring of her sophomore year, Sobolewski says she remembers thinking, “I don’t really need anything.” So, instead of asking for something she could live without, Sobolewski asked her parents to help fund a spring break VISION trip to Montana, where she helped tutor and mentor the struggling Belknap Reservation population.

Seeing the passion her student leader on that Montana trip had for VISION, Sobolewski realized she wanted to play a larger part in the group, too. After returning from Montana, Sobolewski was nominated for a student leadership position and is now a VISION student director.

In her first task as a student leader, Sobolewski served as one of the leaders for her Venezuela trip last January. As a leader, she helped coordinate service sites for the group to visit and was responsible in large part for selecting the members of her group, a process Sobolewski found difficult.

“It’s hard to say what the ‘ideal candidates’ should be,” she said.   Sobolewski said she tends to look for a diverse group of candidates who display “a real, genuine excitement” for the program without regard to where they end up for their site assignments. (Students apply to the VISION program as a whole and, although they can list choices, they have no say in where they will serve.)

“It requires a lot of trust on the part of the participants that we will put them where they will contribute the most and get the most out of it,” Sobolewski said, adding, “I can honestly say I’ve never seen a mistake be made in terms of someone being placed on a trip that they hate or that they shouldn’t be on.”

Sobolewski also looks for participants who don’t necessarily have pre-set expectations for their experiences, because VISION is more about the “personal” experience than traveling as tourists wanting to “see the sights.”

“It’s liberating, the idea of traveling for the sake of meeting people,” Sobolewski said. Given the opportunity to get to know them better over an extended period of time, Sobolewski said the people of Venezuela were the main highlight of her trip. Working in a day care, a soup kitchen and a Sisters of Charity home for men with AIDS over the course of the trip, Sobolewski had plenty of time to interact with and learn from members of the native culture of Venezuela.

One of the main things to strike Sobolewski about the people of Venezuela was their generosity.

“The Venezuelans, they just have the biggest hearts,” she said.   Nearly every night, members of the Venezuelan parish Sobolewski’s group worked through planned parties and other gatherings to thank the group for making the trip to help serve their community.  

“Everywhere we went, we danced,” said Sobolewski, commenting on how generous Venezuelans are in their emotions, as well.   “When they laugh, they laugh. They would just laugh 'til they cried.”

While Sobolewski treasures the relationships she formed while serving through VISION, she’s also thankful for the once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunities many participants like herself are granted while serving.

“This is a travel program,” Sobolewski said. “While that hopefully is not the goal – to get a stamp on the passport – it’s nice to have that opportunity.”

One of the biggest cultural differences between Americans and Venezuelans to strike Sobolewski was the laid-back take on time in Venezuela.

“(Here) we’re just running, running, running,” Sobolewski explained. “In Venezuela, (time) was no big deal, and everything was fine.”

In addition to opening up a new world of travel and culture to her, Sobolewski said VISION has spilled over into the rest of her life as well, and she plans to continue enriching her life through her VISION experiences. Sobolewski has always hoped to attend dental school after graduating from St. Thomas, but now she also dreams of opening a dental office for immigrants and the uninsured someday.

“You go to these places like Venezuela and say you want to be a dentist, and they cover their mouths, embarrassed,” said Sobolewski, who realized she had more service yet to offer.  

“VISION has provided a lot of focus for my career goals,” Sobolewski said. “You can choose any job you want and you can make it into service.”