Westmont Magazine A 30-Year Urban Adventure
Westmont’s San Francisco Urban Program started as the dream of two sociology professors: Brendan Furnish and Ronald Enroth. Their first venture into the city in 1968 lasted for three weeks. In a short time, the program expanded to a full semester with full-time faculty in San Francisco.
Today, the Urban staff includes three full-time faculty and a part-time administrative assistant. From Lone Mountain College where it began, the program moved to a rooming house in Pacific Heights and then to the restored Victorian mansion near Golden Gate Park that Westmont purchased last year. Despite these changes, the same vision still animates the Urban Program: providing students with the opportunity to engage the city and its people and, through this encounter, to begin to understand God’s call to them in the world. That call takes shape through day-to-day encounters on the street, the diverse responsibilities of an internship, lectures and discussions that explore difficult social issues, faculty who take the time to know students on a deep, personal level, and late-night conversations with fellow participants.
At a recent celebration of the first 30 years of the program, Professor Enroth read excerpts of letters from students who participated in the early immersion experiences in the city. Their comments are strikingly similar to those of recent alumni and include words such as “life-changing,” “invaluable,” and “my most important experience in college.” The opportunity to encounter people in profoundly different circumstances gives students a sense of their common humanity that affects the rest of their education.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer described this same reality in a letter about his decision to return to Germany to join the resistance to Hitler, “There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learnt to see the great events of history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer . . . This perspective from below must not become the particular possession of those who are eternally dissatisfied; rather, we must do justice to life in all its dimensions from a higher satisfaction, whose foundation is beyond any talk of ‘from below’ or ‘from above.’ This is the way in which we may affirm it.”
As followers of a God who takes on our suffering in the person of Jesus, we, too, are called to share the suffering of our brothers and sisters in whatever way we are able. Through its history, the Urban Program has been a place where students could discover the perspective of those who are on the margins, and, at the same time, begin to find out what gifts they have to offer to the world. The joining of these two elements of the search for vocation explains the real power of the Urban experience in so many students’ lives.
— Steve Schultz
Director of the Urban Program since 1982
Some people seem to have a sense of clarity about God’s direction before taking steps into their future, but for me that clarity has come as I look back on what has unfolded in my journey. It began for me as a teacher in a one-room country school in Nebraska, and it was quite a distance from there to my last teaching experience at the Urban Program in San Francisco.
After 12 years at Westmont as dean of women, I took a leave of absence and worked in San Francisco for a year, and I became more familiar with the Urban Program. Upon my return to campus, the director of the program and the academic dean approached me about returning to San Francisco to join the Urban faculty. My move to the city opened the door to what I consider to be a new work of God’s grace in my life: the opportunity to understand and experience the world in a way that would never have happened if I had remained in Santa Barbara.
Living and working in the city brought me face to face in a concrete way with some of the pain of the poor and marginalized and with some of the issues prevalent in an urban setting — issues that are duplicated in many other cities and countries in the world. As a result, I found that I began to look at my life and my responsibility to God in completely new ways.
The Urban Program also offered the privilege of working closely with a small group of students and being part of their intellectual and spiritual development. It was an extraordinary experience to witness the growth they made each semester and to see their beautiful openness to the challenges before them as they immersed themselves in the study of the city and its people.
In the one-room country school I taught the basic skills: reading, writing and arithmetic. In the city we learned some of the basic truths of human existence together by examining some of the mysteries and questions and complexities of life. God has been present throughout the journey in the large decisions and in the ordinary circumstances of the days.
— Rose Marie Springer
Dean of Women 1963-1975;
Associate Director of the Urban Program 1976-1998
I attended the San Francisco Urban Program in 1977. Quite simply the Urban Program was a life-changing experience for me. I can trace every position in my professional life and every success in my public life back to the lessons learned and the insights gained 25 years ago.
I pursued graduate studies in public health rather than law school because of my Westmont internship. I was accepted at the finest school of public health in the country, the University of Michigan, in large measure due to my unique experience with the Urban Program. My contacts at Michigan led to positions with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services) and the Congressional Office of Technology assessment.
I returned to San Francisco in 1982 and accepted a position as a political consultant and community organizer with the firm that had provided my internship. The president was a member of the Pacific Exchange, and that led to my present post, where I am a vice president responsible for press and media relations, government affairs, and corporate communications.
I have served four successive San Francisco mayors as a city commissioner. I am most proud of the five years I spent on the public library commission. We built a New Main Library with $109.5 million in public funds and $35 million in private donations and began an extensive renovation of neighborhood branch libraries in the city. My connection to the library began with my Westmont internship, part of which involved conducting a community-needs assessment for the institution.
The need for affordable housing is desperate in San Francisco. I recently worked with neighborhood activists and community leaders to build 114 units of affordable family housing in Haight-Ashbury, the most successful development of its kind in the city. We received more than 3,000 applications for residence in the new dwellings. I first met many of the people involved with this project through the Urban Program.
I learned about community — about the value and satisfaction that can come from being connected and committed to community service — through the Urban Program. My life is richer and more satisfying because of my activism, and more rewarding, thanks to those I met and learned from a quarter century ago.
– Dale Carlson
Vice President, Corporate Affairs
Pacific Exchange Inc.
Member of the Urban Program Advisory Board
When I was applying to colleges as a high school senior, the Urban Program was one of the primary reasons that I chose to attend Westmont. I was drawn to the opportunity to live and serve in a dynamic urban setting and to do so within the context of a supportive Christian community. I wasn’t disappointed. I now consider the Urban Program to be my most important learning experience as a Westmont student. Through my internship and classes I began to explore more deeply what I believed to be true, as opposed to what the culture around me was telling me. That was a life-transforming experience. I feel very lucky that I was able to have that experience and that it happened within a context of mutual respect and strongly held Christian faith.
For most of the past 15 years I have worked in the field of education and many of those years have been with service learning programs. During that time, I have not heard of anything like the Urban Program. I know of no other educational program that so effectively supports students to reflect on and process what they are experiencing. My experience there was central to my personal and spiritual journey and to this day remains a major influence on the shape of my life.
— Jody Ruland ’87
For me, the most obvious benefit of attending the Urban Program was that it kicked off my career. Finding an internship forced me to think about my future beyond Westmont and it was only then that I truly realized how many possibilities were open, how many choices I had the power to make. I ended up interning in the art department for the film, “James and the Giant Peach.” It was so much fun, I thought, “People get paid to do this?”
I’ve now worked at Pixar Animation Studios for almost five years and I love my job as an art department coordinator. I made all of my connections in the animated film business through my internship and even managed to work with my internship advisor again during “Monsters, Inc.” Attending the Urban Program was the perfect way for me to transform from a nervous student with nothing on my resume, to a confident member of the work force with experience, a budding network, and some concrete ideas about what to do after graduation.
— Andrea Warren ’96
My semester on the Urban Program had a profound impact on my sense of the world and my calling in it. The key to these changes had to do with the program’s emphasis upon integrating yourself and who you are into your learning. In my classes and my internship I was continually encouraged to explore what these things I was learning meant for me as a person and for God’s calling in my life. My semester in the city helped me understand the learning I had done in a more traditional academic setting in a new way.
I was a sociology major, and interned at the Youth Guidance Center through the Public Defender’s Office. I quickly learned that while the services we were providing were important, the roots of the criminal activity of these young people almost always came from experiences of abuse and neglect as children. I realized that to have a greater impact, earlier intervention in their lives was necessary.
My decision to attend law school and become an advocate for children came directly out of what I learned from that experience. I was able to get a full scholarship to the University of Denver Law School based largely on my experience in San Francisco and my intention to use my legal training to serve the community. Since completing law school, I’ve taken a position at the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center as an attorney appointed to address the best interests of children who have been abused or maltreated. This means working in the court system to help these children.
More than anything, the Urban Program opened my eyes to the rest of the world. I began to find out that I had something in common with people I’d seen as very different from me before, whether they were my fellow students, the young people I worked with at my internship, or the people I encountered daily in the city. I formed some deep friendships with my fellow students and faculty that continue to this day.
When I left the city, my faith in a loving God had become much stronger, even though I’d also encountered a deeper level of suffering than I had known before. I found myself worrying less about labels, and able to more honestly engage with others without feeling that it threatened my own beliefs.
— Becky McCasland Levine ’97
Public interest lawyer
I came to think of the Urban Program as a hinge in my Westmont experience, where my life and education took an important new direction. After my semester in San Francisco, I saw everything differently.
The thing I longed for that Urban provided was a substantive connection with the world and with important issues that Christians need to address in our culture. I had enjoyed my classes on campus and found them stimulating, but I began to have questions about whether Christ had anything to do with the world that existed beyond my own inner spiritual life. The Urban Program gave me the chance to reflect on what my faith meant in the face of poverty, diversity, alienation, violence — and the concrete human beings who are affected by these issues.
This dimension of the program made it an essential part of my college education. Afterward, I saw everything in the light of my encounter with people in the city who were marginalized. The subjects I was studying and the decisions I was making about my life needed to be seen in light of the poor and God’s concern for them. Jesus’ words, “To whom much is given, much is required,” took on a new meaning for me. How was I going to use my education to empower those who lacked the opportunities I had?
The Urban Program had the same academic rigor as my studies on the campus in Montecito, but it captured me with different questions. What do racism and classism look like today in this particular place? What should we be doing about it as followers of Jesus? I distinctly remember listening to a speaker in Chinatown, hearing statistics about the severe shortage of housing there, while seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling what it might be like to live in that neighborhood.
Christ talks more about the poor than almost any other subject. As his followers, we need to come to terms with his words. The Urban Program gave me the chance to encounter this part of the body of Christ personally, and to know poor people as persons, and not as a statistic or a stereotype. The experience made me ashamed of the opinions I’d offered so freely before, without understanding what people’s lives were really like.
The choices I’ve made since graduation have been profoundly influenced by my semester in San Francisco. I’ve chosen to live in the city: first Washington, D.C., and now my wife and I have moved back to San Francisco. I’ve also chosen to do non-profit, social-justice work, when my computer skills would have helped me get a much more lucrative position. I have tried to pursue a different definition of success than the one our culture relentlessly presses upon us — one that looks less at measuring the accumulation of things and more at how our lives can benefit others, those without privilege or voice. Success on a given day may lie in treating one person you encounter on the street as a beloved child of God. If Christ’s message is good news for the whole world, and not just for me and my personal problems, that changes the whole way I operate in the world.
— Chris Hayashida Knight ’00
My time in San Francisco was truly a period of transformation. I can now see that my life was significantly changed in those four months. My experiences as a chaplain and life within our Urban community challenged me to open my eyes, ears, and heart, and to learn from all those around me. I was forced to go beyond what was comfortable and to live with ambiguity. I gained wisdom and insight from many unexpected places, and my world was redefined. It astounds me how much I learned, how I much I grew, and the relationships that developed through the course of one semester. I left with a deeper understanding of self and a greater sense of wonder for the world in which we live.
— Kyle Murray ’02
Public Benefits Advocate, Jesuit Volunteer Corps
The Urban Program is arguably the most worthwhile thing I have ever done. My time in San Francisco freed me from the small container I lived in and opened up a world bigger than I ever thought possible.
I learned how to wrestle with issues that are becoming increasingly important in our society, and I gained the security to ask the questions without having the answers.
The four months I spent in the city challenged, encouraged, stretched, and made me more of the person God created me to be. Every part of the program, from the classes, to my internship, to living in a metropolitan city while enjoying a close community in the house, made my experience incredibly fulfilling and enriching.
Classes offered a completely different setting. I felt comfortable speaking out and sharing my opinions with my housemates. I learned how to ask uncomfortable questions and how to wrestle with views different than my own.
The practicum course allowed me to search for my vocation and ask questions about my future. My internship as a chaplain at San Francisco General Hospital was a growing experience.
As a psychology major, I had the chance to work with mentally ill patients, and I learned more than any textbook has ever taught me.
Beyond that, I learned what it means to love, even those who are drastically different from me.
While visiting with patients, family, and staff at the hospital, I learned about the radically inclusive love of Christ and got a glimpse into a world — a very broken world — that He loves and for which He died.
Life in the city allowed me to step outside of myself and helped me gain confidence in myself as an independent individual — and also in my God.
Coming home after a tiring day at work and walking into the house felt like I was coming home to my family. We came together as radically different individuals and learned how to live together in respect and love. I have made many lifelong friends. I also built incredibly strong relationships with my professors and interacted with them on an intimate and informal level.
I learned an untold amount about my world, myself, and my God, and I was significantly changed because of my experiences.
— Kristine Galli ’03