The Coliseum is seen in Rome, Italy, at dusk on the evening of February 26, 2013.

Rome to Home: SOLV Global Ties 'Empower' Study Abroad to 'Awakening' at Home

For many students who have studied abroad it’s a familiar feeling: Returning to school after an incredible experience, ready to do something here at home coming out of it. Then, routine sets in, and the next thing you know your experience is fading into the rearview mirror.

Senior Maggie Martin went through exactly that, “upset and frustrated at myself” after returning from fall 2017's College of Arts and Sciences' (CAS) Empower semester in Rome and not building on it here in St. Paul. She decided to do something about it, spearheading the creation of the Awakenings program, which gives students returning from the Empower semester opportunities to impact change around issues they were exposed to and explored in Italy, with an emphasis on helping refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants.

Those efforts have now grown into SOLV Global, an extension of CAS's SOLV Initiative that takes the framework of the Empower and Awakening programs and expands it to other study abroad opportunities.

“People have been awakened to our community’s problems, and it also has sparked their desire to reach out to our peers,” Martin said. “This study abroad experience is something that changed my life and drives what I want to do moving forward.”

Martin partnered with Associate Dean Mark Stansbury-O’Donnell and Center for the Common Good Executive Director Theresa Ricke-Kiely to identify and develop partnerships with local organizations. Students now volunteer with 11 organizations in the Twin Cities, such as the Hmong American Partnership, Jonathan House, and Dream Refugee, which was started by St. Thomas alumnus Mohamed Malim.

“Students are observing firsthand in Rome the refugee crisis as it’s playing out in North Africa, Syria and elsewhere. That’s not a local issue to Rome. Part of their education, what they learn in the classroom, applies to the real world; what they experience abroad applies to their lives in St. Paul,” Stansbury-O’Donnell said. “They should see themselves as global citizens. … They go and have this enriching experience, and when they’re back here they build on what they learned in Rome and live it out. That’s what a liberal arts education should be doing.”

Fortuitous timing

After her initial frustration at her own lack of action after returning to St. Paul in January, 2018, Martin reached out to Kanishka Chowdhury, who taught in Rome. He recommended she work with Stansbury-O’Donnell, who was in the midst of trying to develop stronger programming for students returning from the Empower semester.

“We were parachuting the students in and helicoptering them out, and when they came back there was nothing to connect them back here to what they might be doing. I was thinking we needed to do something about the return, but I wasn’t quite sure what. Maggie came into the office then; it was heaven sent, on some level,” he said.

Martin worked with Stansbury-O’Donnell and Ricke-Kiely in identifying organizations, but Stansbury-O’Donnell said Martin has been “fabulous in the work of this and deserves all the credit in the world.” With an eclectic mix of College of Arts and Sciences majors in the program, the organizations appealed to different interests; every single student ended up paired with their first choice for an organization, Stansbury-O’Donnell said.

“There has been overwhelming involvement,” Martin said. “It’s been great for me to talk with other students who have identical experiences being opened up to these [refugee, asylum and immigration] issues and are applying it in our community in a way we can feel we’re helping and passionate about, at the very least spreading the word and having some advocacy.”

Growing into SOLV Global

As so many students taking part in the Empower-to-Awakenings programs have had such a profound experience, it has kicked off the desire to expand to even more opportunities. SOLV Global has risen to meet that desire: Through opportunities to take part in a CAS Signature Program, students will connect to learning and people around the world, and then return home ready to apply their knowledge and passion to make the world a better place.

“When a person shares their own personal story of hardship and struggle with you, it changes you. It's not just a footnote in a history book,” Martin said. “While I listened to this refugee tell us about their living nightmare, something inside me shifted and opened up a space in my heart to care more. And now I have the desire to want to do more to make a difference."