Alumna makes mark on world through mission trips

November 30, 2017

For Mayela Varela, of Cicero, Benedictine University's Campus Ministry was a life-changing experience.

“Campus Ministry helped me grow, learn about myself and allowed me to act on my passion for social justice and learning,” she said.

In her first year at Benedictine, Varela discovered Serving Together Engaging our Purpose (STEP), a long-term service program that offers opportunities for international service through a partnership with The Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet.

Varela was also an active member of Fempower, a club focused on gender equality; Gawad Kalinga (GK) Benedictine, a student-led chapter of an organization that fundraises and provides assistance for impoverished villages in the Philippines; and the BOLD program, which offers students seminars on leadership skills.

In Campus Ministry, she also served as a Catholic Relief Services ambassador and peer minister of Service and Social Justice.

“I was motivated to join service programs because I wanted to be involved within Benedictine’s community,” Varela said.

In the STEP program, she became entrenched in the world outside of the University, living and working among those in extreme poverty in the Philippines and Bolivia.

Three mission trips to the Philippines and two to Bolivia only increased the first-generation college student’s love for helping others in need.

“In the Philippines, we were primarily there to build houses,” Varela said. “The relationships we created were so strong and powerful that it made me want to return. Every day, I think about the amazing communities we worked with and how they impacted my life. The people of the Philippines are full of so much love, kindness and joy.”

In Bolivia, she worked at low-income sites in need of renovation.

While STEP trips are primarily focused on volunteer work, a major component requires students to intently reflect on the reasons they want to serve.

“I learned that I wanted to continue to help people, but I wanted to focus on ending poverty or helping those in poverty,” Varela said. “I saw the little things I take advantage of every day and it allowed me to make changes in my life.

“Throughout all of my STEP encounters, I have seen and felt God in the face of the poor and of my peers,” she added. “This has allowed me to grow within my faith as well.”

Students who participate in STEP gain invaluable experiences and perspectives that can inspire a greater awareness of global issues, a passion for serving the poor and marginalized, or the identification of a career path.

“The biggest piece of advice I can offer is to maintain an open mind,” Varela said. “Each STEP experience has been different for me, even if I went to the same place more than once.”

Unfortunately, not every student who wants to go on a STEP trip can afford it.

“Our students have a lot of different projects they will take on to raise funds for a service experience,” said Carrie Roberts, M.A. (Theology), director of Campus Ministry. “Students have hosted bake sales, created PayPal pages, organized an evening at a bowling alley and even worked with local restaurants that donated a portion of their proceeds to charitable causes.

“Students put in an incredible amount of work into fundraising for this,” Roberts added. “However, most often this is not enough. Many students still end up paying at least half of the service experience cost themselves by working overtime hours or dipping into their savings accounts.”

The STEP program embodies the University’s commitment to serving the greater good, a Catholic and Benedictine hallmark. Due to the escalating cost of these service trips, students either pay much of their own way or abstain from participating.

Please consider an investment in the STEP program. Visit ben.edu/giving and indicate “STEP Program” in the designation box. For more information, contact Eric Solberg in the Office of University Development at esolberg@ben.edu or (630) 829-6497.

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Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls more than 5,000 students in 59 undergraduate and 23 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the seventh consecutive year in 2017. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (hlcommission.org). For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, admissions@ben.edu or visit ben.edu.

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