What it Means to be a Sr. Seton Cunneen Fellow
By Chrissy Palmer ’08
I received a phone call from Barbara McCrabb with very exciting news on May 5, 2006. I, along with Monique Baker, had been chosen to spend my summer in Washington, D.C., as a Sr. Seton Cunneen ’65 Fellow! This meant we would each work at an organization of our choice in D.C. where we would devote ten weeks of our summer to learn and help a community in need. In return, we would receive housing if needed, money for food and transportation, and a $3,000 stipend.
As an international affairs major with an interest in the Hispanic community, I chose to work alongside Sr. Carmen Soto, an alumna of Trinity from the class of 1997, at the Spanish Catholic Center (SCC) as a case worker assistant. The Spanish Catholic Center is a nonprofit, faith-based organization that provides low-income immigrants in the D.C. metropolitan area with medical, dental, immigration and social services. The SCC will help any person or family that is in need, regardless of their religion or origin. However, a majority of their clients are Hispanic, and therefore Spanish speaking skills were almost a necessity. I decided to work with SCC because I had never worked with a Hispanic immigrant community before, and I like new challenges and a variety of work environments. While I had studied the language for eight years, the opportunity to speak Spanish on a daily basis made me ecstatic.
My first day at the SCC showed me how much I had to learn in the world of Spanish communication. I could barely understand my co-workers who spoke slowly specifically for me! Clearly, it was a challenge communicating with the clients who were native Spanish-speakers, as they assumed I was an expert with the language because I worked there. My safeguard was Sr. Carmen who showed me around the Center and introduced me to my tasks for that summer.
Once I had gotten past the language shock, I was curious about what exactly my job entailed. I saw clients, some new and some who had visited before, and listened to their needs such as housing issues, food or clothing concerns, legal matters or employment issues. Some needed help with a specific situation, and if I did not have the resources available at the SCC to assist them, it was up to me to find an agency that did.
A further challenge was that Sr. Carmen was going away on a retreat in the middle of my second week of working at SCC. This meant I would be in the office by myself as the sole case worker for one whole week, giving me only a week and a half to shadow Sr. Carmen and learn as much as possible in order to take clients in on my own. It was challenging and stressful but completely worth the experience.
Earlier I had mentioned the reality check on my Spanish skills, and during Sr. Carmen’s week away, my experience talking to clients on my own was a great learning experience. I admit I made a lot of mistakes, because every person speaks a different dialect and I don’t know every word imaginable, but I survived. I began most of my conversations by introducing myself as an assistant to Sr. Carmen, the case worker. If they did not speak English, I then simply asked them to speak very slowly while explaining their needs because I was still learning the language. If I couldn’t understand them, I wouldn’t be able to help them.
I was so grateful for their patience during our conversations and in most cases I was able to help people with their needs or refer them to the right place. For those serious situations where it was critical that I did not tell them the wrong information, I made appointments for them to return another day when Sr. Carmen would be in the office. After a week on my own, the next eight weeks went much more smoothly.
Spending the summer seeing dozens of different people, I served as the primary contact of three major cases. With Anika, Roberto and Fernando, I had the opportunity, for the first time in my life, to work on human trafficking issues, discrimination in the workplace and homelessness. I built trust and connected with people while maintaining the appropriate boundaries among clients and myself. My appreciation of the Spanish language, the issues and obstacles of some immigrants, and my own ability to provide support to people in need increased dramatically. By the time my fellowship was over, my spoken Spanish improved dramatically, and I held complete conversations with my co-workers and clients. Listening to people’s stories, seeing their need and having the opportunity to do something about it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.