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Who are today’s Marquette students? We asked nine students and they answered in the way young people do, plainly: This is my strength. This is my vulnerability. This is where Marquette comes in. Here is what they said.  >>>

Interviews by Joni Moths Mueller

B wanted to go into the military since he was 6 years old, ever since his mom gave him a GI Joe toy. He served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before being medically retired from the Army in 2014. He endured months of medical care for a fractured spine and counseling for serious PTSD, and today credits doctors and therapists with getting him through. Their compassion set him on a path that led to Marquette, where he is double majoring in biological studies and philosophy with concentrations in ethics and values. His end goal is medical school. Taking this path isn’t easy.

He is an untraditional student at what he calls a very traditional campus, the old guy at 31 studying beside 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. To balance family and academics he made the radical choice to live in an apartment off campus during the week and go home on weekends to his wife and three kids. His wife, he says, is a rock who makes it possible.

Everything he hopes to do here — and from here on — is about giving back. He founded a Veterans Association on campus and also facilitates a peer support group through the Wounded Warrior Project. “It’s hard because so many veterans are struggling,” he says. “If I just reach one that’s all that matters.”

B’s story is different from that of most Marquette students. But each student profiled revealed precious details about their ambitions and the hurdles they’ve had to leap to be here, to stay here or that they see looming ahead. Here are their stories:

As a first-generation Latina student, J made a different choice from her peers. “I never wanted a quinceañera. I was always education oriented, highly influenced by my parents’ decision to come to the U.S.,” says the senior, who is majoring in advertising and psychology.

Her father’s death put that hope in peril. “That hit my family hard emotionally and financially,” she says. “I’ve learned that the hardships I’m facing are simply hurdles. I’ve been able to overcome and keep going because they remind me of my worth and my purpose.”

J learned about the Evans Scholars program in high school and signed up to attend a Caddie Camp. “I worked my butt off,” she says, laughing. The work paid off. “I felt such a rush when I interviewed for the Evans Scholarship. Proving my worthiness in front of a banquet of 200 was an experience like no other. Less than a week later, I received the best news of my life. I won a full ride — that was a huge moment for us. My mom knew I would be OK. I will be an Evans Scholar for life.”

M is also the first in the family to attend a four-year college. Though her family is pleased she is advancing her education, they questioned the cost. “I’m paying for school myself,” she says.

But her experiences have supported the investment. Marquette’s mission to serve others syncs with a personal priority. She tutored in a Milwaukee Public School in the 53206 zip code freshman year and realized her middle-class upbringing differed dramatically from that of her students. This year the psychology and political science major is living on the Dorothy Day floor in Straz Hall. “It’s an open space to discuss justice issues,” she says, “how we as students can change things, stand up for the elephant in the room, the thing that no one really wants to talk about but is a big topic. We try to talk as much as we can about that.”

Freedom to tangle with tough discussions also touches two students who see themselves as members of minority communities on campus.

For N, a student from Milwaukee majoring in biochemistry and minoring in Arabic, there was never  a question of what was her best college option. Her mom, originally from Senegal, and her dad, originally from the Central African Republic, came to Milwaukee 22 years ago. Her mom was sponsored by a Milwaukee family to enroll in graduate school at Marquette.

As a commuting student now in her junior year, N says her experience is different from that of nearly all of her classmates because she doesn’t live on campus. But she points to what she sees as an even greater challenge — a lack of inclusiveness on campus. “Marquette is making progress, but I see a definite disconnect between students of color and students from the suburbs, who have no experience with diverse groups of people or the city setting,” she says.

Instead of blending, N says, students seek familiar comfort zones, which leaves students who commute or who are untraditional in age or who have disabilities to find their way.

N doesn’t wait for others to take action. She builds connections. “I joined the African American Student Association because it’s a cool way to share parts of my culture with other students in a non-threatening way,” she says. “I try to participate in events planned by other cultural organizations to show solidarity.”

N feels strongly about the responsibility to step out and represent. “I feel good about what I’m learning,” she says, “and how I’ll pass it on, touch the next generation.” She takes that message to students at a refugee resettlement agency where she volunteers. The children in her class there, she says, think of Marquette as a “wow” school, but some don’t see themselves here. “I tell them with more students applying, the school will be more open to students and it will change. You have to be a part of the change.”

S is a graduate student studying mental health advocacy. She knows a similar isolation at Marquette. S was diagnosed with a serious eye condition at age 3 and is blind. “I’ve had really positive and really negative experiences,” she says about living on campus. “Even in class, people don’t know how to approach ‘different’ — they think they don’t know the right thing to say. But I watch the same television shows. I go to the gym just like you.”

She points to three factors that make her isolation particularly acute right now. “Every day I have to think: I have a disability. I’m a woman of color. I’m from a Muslim family. Three months ago, it was just who I am. Now I have to worry,” she says, and adds, “I want to take my education into the world, but I wonder about when I graduate in 2018 — how will I be embraced?”

She has no doubt that the track she’s on will put her in a position to affect the lives of other people in an important way. S plans to work in trauma advocacy, hopefully with veterans or victims of sexual assault or domestic violence.

Uncertainty in this moment is a shared experience for too many students.

“I am a Dreamer,” says K, a junior majoring in public relations and political science. “My parents came to live with family here when I was three and a half. They sacrificed everything to come. They told me, ‘Your job is to go to school, get an education.’ That’s my inspiration.”

K says the election has caused her sleepless nights. She decided to learn about why some people support deportation by attending an event on campus featuring guest lecturer Ben Shapiro. “I was hesitant,” she admits, “and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I needed to be there, to expose myself to other narratives.

“I’m living under a cloud,” K adds, knowing that her permit could be withdrawn. “My dad worries, asks me if I feel safe, if I want to come home. I say no, I worked too hard to get here. My struggle is something many students could never relate to.”

At 9 months, KT was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, a condition that causes non-cancerous tumors to form in her nervous system. “My parents were told I wouldn’t make it to be 2 years old. I defied the doctor’s expectation. I’m not gonna be that statistic,” she says.

KT is a sophomore majoring in business economics and marketing. She came to Marquette from the East Coast and admits it was a struggle at first. “But I found my own group, found my way and have excelled since then,” she says.

She participated in an International Marquette Action Program trip to South Africa and learned about reconciliation and cultural immersion. “The lessons I learned there help me to be the difference,” she says. “My mom is still nervous because I’m so far away. But I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

T has found happiness, too, and even more important to her, faith.
“To understand me you have to understand my dad’s life,” says the junior majoring in psychology. “When I was a child, my dad left the church and that caused a lot of questions for me, big questions.”

T applied to Marquette to make her family happy. But when her father died and the Marquette community turned out to support her, T realized she had a second family. “After my dad died, questions of faith began popping into my head. I had my first experience of 10 p.m. Mass and felt this pool of love. I jumped head first into the ocean of Catholic faith. I bought a Bible and a rosary. I attended Salt & Light nights. Next I was teaching catechism. Faith became a habit.”

Then T felt a puffiness in her neck that turned out to be cancer. The experience “led me to figure out what I want to do with my life,” she says. She decided to use her education to work with individuals who suffer brain injuries. “Marquette changed me faith-wise,” she says. “Every time I think about it, I think back to my first theology class. The professor talked about the difference between making and being the difference, that it’s about your everyday life embodying it. That stuck with me and it’s what I’m moving toward.”

D may offer the simplest definition of the impact of education on a life — his. As a child, his family was broken up and the three brothers were split among foster homes. “Growing up, it was difficult to make friends,” he says.

His second foster mother pushed him to think about going to college; she thought Marquette would be a good fit. Now D is a junior, majoring in business IT and supply chain management. He is an RA and member of the Cheer Team. “It’s weird to think I got this opportunity,” he says. “The biggest thing I’m learning is I can overcome hardship. Being the difference doesn’t only mean Marquette to me. It means being different from my past, having a family that’s different. Coming here has pulled me up in terms of what I want, what I have the potential to be.” •

 

In dialogue

Marquette’s student body comes from 63 countries and nearly every state in the union. They have different faiths, cultures and life experience. The number of students self-identifying in need of accommodations for disabilities has more than tripled since 2007. This tapestry brings a nearly indescribable richness to campus — and also some new challenges. Dr. William Welburn, executive director of institutional diversity and inclusion, talks about some of the challenges. >>>

Q: Is Marquette more diverse today?
If you think about it, Marquette was founded on a principle of diversity in educating students from European immigrant families. What has changed is that perhaps, since the early 1970s, more students from culturally diverse communities across Milwaukee, the region and from other countries as well make up our student body.

Q: How is that having an impact on campus?
One of the real challenges for us now is to make the phrase “We Are Marquette” meaningful to everyone. From the climate study we did two years ago, we learned that as many as one in five students, faculty and staff members struggle with the sense of belonging. Finding yourself, your interests and your communities becomes important. One of the challenges I hear from students is that often a sense of not belonging comes from how other students are treating them. We have to be very frank about that, whether we’re talking about micro-aggressions or even more aggressive behavior, so that everyone feels not simply welcomed but that this is their campus. Students who engage in practices that make other students feel as though they don’t belong are the students that we will need to work with in future years.

Q: How do you help students reach that understanding?
We want to do more out-of-class education. The educational experience that goes on in the res halls, libraries, union, in clubs and organizations, in student government, just walking down the street, at athletic events — wherever. Those are places where people converge and can have honest conversations. We want to encourage people to be in dialogue, to see the benefit of being in dialogue, to strengthen their intercultural competence so that our thoughts, comments and actions affirm one another and show that we care about one another.

Q: Does our Catholic, Jesuit mission help?
I think we actually underappreciate things we can get from our Catholic, Jesuit heritage and from Ignatian spirituality. I’ll use the example of standing in solidarity. The Jesuits actually go out in the world and live the experience and grow to become interculturally connected. One of our basic statements on human dignity and diversity is grounded in the way the Jesuits have worked for centuries on justice and acknowledging remarkable cultural differences. If we’re going to find common ground as a community, it will be through using that Jesuit wisdom to build our awareness and understanding of the differences we all possess. •

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