By Jerry Duggan
When Julia Vargas interviewed for the position of director of service learning at Rockhurst University in 2008, she wasn’t too familiar with Jesuit education.
Still, she had done some research; she saw a commitment to doing justice, emphasis on faith and desire to work with the marginalized.
All those things, she told Fr. Kevin Cullen, SJ, who was one of several people who interviewed her, aligned with her personal values. The interviewers were convinced, and Vargas still leads the Rockhurst Service Learning Program today.
Vargas spent her first 16 years in North Carolina, where her father was a Baptist minister, primarily for Spanish-speaking communities. She admired his approach of unity over division and community over isolation.
“My father would play the accordion, and anyone could sing along,” she said. “Spanish, French Creole and English speakers would unite for his music. It helped me see how our world was vast and diverse, but so small and similar at the same time.”
That’s the attitude Vargas seeks to cultivate in the Rockhurst community: that opportunities to serve with and learn from others are all around us if we look for them.
Eventually, Vargas’ family moved to Missouri and she headed off to William Jewell College, a then-faith-based institution outside Kansas City.
Vargas arrived on campus unsure of her path in life and wanting to develop a faith life of her own. Because of these experiences, Vargas is able to connect easily with Rockhurst students, who often arrive on campus with similar feelings.
“College is a lot to navigate, both professionally and in terms of faith,” she said. “I can relate to those feelings students have because I had them myself.”
After graduating with a psychology degree, Vargas was still undecided on a career, but knew she wanted to help others.
She worked with nonprofits for over a decade before entering the realm of higher education. The interview with Fr. Cullen set in motion what has become her dream job, combining her passions of service, community and faith into one role.
Vargas boils her sprawling position down to three areas: community service, academic service learning and community/civic engagement.
Community service is perhaps the most conventional of the three: Vargas connects students and student groups with community service opportunities.
Two nuances are key to success in this area of her job. First, Vargas works to cultivate an attitude across campus that community service is encouraged.
“Many students come from high schools where community service was a requirement, so often, the first question is what’s required here,” she said. “Even upon hearing that there is no requirement, most remain interested in pursuing service opportunities, and it’s my job to keep that enthusiasm going.”
Vargas also works with students to determine what service opportunities best suit them.
“Not all service opportunities are the same, and not all students are the same,” she explained. “Part of my job is helping students find service work that utilizes their talents, passions and gifts.”
Second, Vargas coordinates academic service learning, which encourages faculty to incorporate service into their curriculum. These efforts can take off in many directions.
“As part of our education courses, for example, students were not student teaching until their last semester of coursework, and that’s too late for students who discover they don’t like teaching to change paths,” she said.
A solution rooted in academic service learning is to have students teach earlier in the program, allowing them to better discern if teaching is their true calling while also serving the students they instruct.
Thus, academic service learning “broadens the definition of service, to be more inclusive than painting a house, serving at a soup kitchen, and things of that nature,” according to Vargas.
Lastly, community engagement immerses Rockhurst students in the community in ways that aren’t “service,” per se. Students are encouraged to dine and shop in Kansas City’s urban neighborhoods to broaden their perspective and flip the script on popular narratives.
“The goal is to see the positives of neighborhoods rather than just look for the negative,” she said. “Once students see that they can contribute to and spend time in these neighborhoods, their perspective changes.”
Overall, Vargas enjoys getting students to see that a Rockhurst education is an experience, not just a degree.
“Developing and growing in your faith, immersing yourself in the local community and doing community service are a big part of a student’s time at Rockhurst, and I’m honored I get to help them experience that,” she said.
What’s more, Vargas finds this position as rewarding personally as it is professionally.
“I’m blessed to have a career that helps me live out my personal values.”