Student Tutors Write the Stories of Lifetimes

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

PHILADELPHIA (November 23, 2010) - Committing a life's worth of stories to paper is a daunting task, as sophomore education major Melanie Solano can attest. Weekly, Solano interviews William J. McGrath, S.J., a resident of Manresa Hall, the on-campus nursing home for retired Jesuit priests and brothers at Saint Joseph’s University, to record the story of his inspiring life.

A Philadelphia native and the son of Irish immigrants, Fr. McGrath is a former educator who lived through the privation of the Great Depression without his father. Solano is writing his dynamic life story as part of a service requirement for her service-learning course, “Writing Fellows, Theory & Practice.” Service-learning courses are offered through the University’s Faith-Justice Institute.

The second of seven sons, Fr. McGrath grew up in a North Philadelphia parish, the Church of the Gesu. After her husband died at a young age, Fr. McGrath’s mother and her brood of boys found life difficult. “He’s been through so many hardships; I’ve realized how privileged I am,” Solano says. “I’m humbled by the struggles he’s overcome.”

Solano, of Havertown, Pa., is also inspired by Fr. McGrath’s teaching tales, and by his passion for education. “He taught for many years at Scranton Preparatory High School, and he’s still helping students today. Fr. McGrath told me he learns from the students he meets, and believes he’s still of value to them. He’s an educator through and through, and I can only hope to be as influential as he has been when I am a teacher,” she says.

Jenny Spinner, Ph.D., assistant professor of English and director of SJU’s Writing Center, is teaching the course to 10 budding Writing Center tutors, who are training to become peer-tutors.

Each week, five fellows venture to Manresa Hall, and five others visit Inglis House, a nearby nursing care facility for adults with physical disabilities. Spinner says the Inglis House fellows participate in Vital Stories, an existing program at the facility that calls upon volunteers to interview and write the residents’ life stories.

Many of the fellows are reporting enlightening experiences. As a result of her meetings with John B. Woodward, S.J., junior English major Emily Buccieri, of Broomall, Pa., has experienced growth in her spirituality and identity as a student at Saint Joseph’s. “I’ve learned what it’s like to be a Jesuit. This has helped me understand the mission of the University and the amazing people behind it. Fr. Woodward personifies what the institution represents,” says Buccieri.

Writing fellow Maura Southwell of Philadelphia, Pa., a sophomore biology major and John P. McNulty Scholar, believes that hearing about the many accomplishments of Joseph Monaghan, S.J., has inspired her to help her fellow classmates tell their stories. “The interviews have taught me how to really listen to someone, and to hear what the person is actually saying,” Southwell says.

Collectively, the students assigned to Inglis House have been inspired by the unique, heart-wrenching stories of their subjects.

“There are former models, business executives, teachers and other inspirational professionals at Inglis House. Each resident has a story to tell that goes beyond their disorder,” says junior English major William Wells, of Hockessin, Del. “Although they may not be able communicate with the world, I can tell their story.”

James Mannion, a senior religious studies major, says many of the Inglis House residents experience communication barriers that are associated with their disabilities. “Because of the disconnect, some of the nurses and caretakers may not know what the residents have been through,” says Mannion, of Port Washington, N.Y. “I can be the person to share their experiences with others.”

Spinner says the students’ service has helped them become attentive and caring tutors, comparing the Jesuits and Inglis House residents with SJU students seeking help with writing. “Everyone who comes into the Writing Center has a story; it is the job of the fellows to help them tell it,” she says.


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