Before you can be for someone, you must be with them. This simple but profound mantra forms the foundation of Ignacio Companions and De Colores, two of LMU’s service immersion programs. With a combined history of more than 40 years, IC and DC embody the university’s mission to promote social justice through the lens of Catholic social teaching.
The office of Samantha Hartman, campus minister for international service, is tucked in a quiet corner, far removed from the destinations she recites: Tanzania and Rwanda, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, Jamaica, El Salvador, Belize, Ecuador, Chile. Stacks of T-shirts emblazoned with program logos, and a small cluster of suitcases stationed nearby, however, serve as reminders of miles logged — and trips soon to be taken.
Founded in 2012 by Jim Erps, SJ, director of Campus Ministry and resident minister, Ignacio Companions has four guiding principles: spirituality, simplicity, social justice and community. These pillars shape all aspects of Ignacio Companions, including each excursion, from itinerary to participants.
“This is very much hands-on education, and so many students come back profoundly affected by this,” says Erps. “Part of LMU’s mission statement is the education of the whole person, and this is a significant piece of that holistic experience.”
In one region, the prevailing concern may be the absence of electricity or access to clean drinking water; in another, it is challenges that immigrants and refugees face. Students hear directly from those impacted, as well as from Jesuit volunteers or organizations working to combat the issue. They are encouraged to observe and absorb, to engage and form relationships with the people in these communities.
“IC trips don’t necessarily have a focus, because we don’t want the students to have just one story or one perspective of the country,” Hartman explains. “So, they’re going to various organizations and learning about all of the different social injustices that are happening within that community or city.”
That open-endedness is intentional, but always provokes the same question from first-time participants: What exactly will we do?
“You’re being present with people and sharing their day-to-day life,” explains Hartman, who emphasizes that technology, including the ubiquitous cellphone, are banned on both trips. “Students on these trips are going in order to learn.”
Each day closes with a group reflection to support students as they process the experience. While the program is grounded in the university’s spiritual values, these discussions are open forums for all faiths.
“It’s not just Catholic reflection. It’s really inclusive. We want to meet students where they’re at with their faith. And I feel that you’re supposed to be questioning your faith. This is where you can do it,” says Hartman.
The approach is working. Since its inception, Ignacio Companions has grown from two trips per year to six, ranging from eight days to two weeks and destinations on four continents. Its popularity necessitates a competitive application process, with spots for two staff members and 12 students on each trip.
Amanda Montez, class of 2015, served as a student leader on an IC trip to Santiago, Chile, and recalls how the experience impacted her.
“There’s a moment I still remember,” says Amanda. “We were working with a man who had grown up on the streets and was well known in this neighborhood that had a lot of homeless. During a reflection, he got us into a circle and had us hold hands, one hand facing up and one facing down, and explained that we have to both support and be supported. I always felt really supported, back home at LMU and in Santiago, by those wanting to teach us more about what was going on in their own communities.”
That same spirit pervades De Colores, albeit in an accelerated fashion. The 48-hour trips to Tijuana, Mexico, occur about once a month, and while the programs overlap in their shared commitment to spirituality and community, De Colores focuses almost exclusively on immigration issues. Its extensive history speaks to the ongoing challenges that define our southern border.
“Now, more than ever, students need to put a face to immigration,” says Hartman.
Founded in the 1980s by LMU alumni Julianne and Chris North, De Colores partners with their foundation, Build a Miracle. Students start the weekend at the North’s home on Friday night, before crossing Saturday into Mexico with program guide Adolfo Noguez. The morning is spent helping with a home construction project, followed by lunch and conversation with local women at the community center. The day closes with dinner and speakers at Casa Del Migrante, a shelter for men who have been recently deported from the U.S. or who are attempting to migrate north. These touchpoints are the defining aspect of the program, serving as catalysts for personal connections.
Thirty Years of Reaching Across the Border
They started 30 years ago and are still going strong: De Colores social justice immersion trips to Tijuana, Mexico, have become a signature tradition at LMU. Watch our video as we go along on a recent trip with students and the Campus Ministry team.
“On my first trip, I just admired how much love and support everyone in the community gave us as soon as we got there. They treated us like heroes,” says Ruth Gomez, a junior and De Colores student leader. “I expected them to be a little closed off at first, but they were so welcoming.”
On Sunday, the return trip starts with a drive along the Mexican side of the border.
“It’s colorful, there’s tons of artwork, and on the exact opposite side in the U.S., it’s gated and there are border patrol agents,” explains Hartman, who uses the striking contrast to generate discussion and critical thinking among attendees. “Students get to meet migrants, talk to the border agents and ultimately form their own opinions.”
The tense political climate, increasingly partisan rhetoric and strained diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Mexico have highlighted the importance of a see-for-yourself learning experience — and underscore how critical it is to maintain this long-standing relationship between LMU and the community in Tijuana.
“When the travel ban came out, I deferred to what the Office of International Students and Scholars decided, which was that all international students should not leave the country,” says Hartman. “There are also students who are undocumented who want to go and provide that perspective, but they’re not able to.”
For those students who are able to attend, the experience usually inspires repeat trips across the border and often generates a revolving-door interest in Ignacio Companions.
“Going on both trips really helped solidify in me to do a year of service after graduating,” says Amanda. “It continues to inform how I see relationships, how I want to build community, and how I hope to present and teach about social justice issues in the future.”