March 27, 2020, San Rafael, California – At Dominican University of California, professional faculty members are not the only people who teach students and influence their lives. Sister Mary Soher, OP, as Director of Campus Ministry, and student leaders help the entire university community to understand the ideals of the Dominican Order, reach out to people in need, and become involved in social justice issues.
“I work with our student leaders to help our university community embrace and embody the Dominican ideals of study, reflection, community, and service,” Sister Mary said. “I’m learning how to advise and empower them so that they continue to grow as leaders in developing a variety of skills, amidst all their other responsibilities. I’m learning how to best support them and then together offering quality programming to their peers and to the university.”
An Adrian Dominican Sister, she is in her fourth year of service at Dominican University of California, sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael.
Sister Mary and her team of students work to make members of the campus community aware of issues such as homelessness and hunger; coordinate Sunday liturgies, labyrinth walks, retreats, and a variety of activities; and support students in their challenges.
An ongoing project of Sister Mary and the student leaders is the Penguin Pantry, initiated in September 2018 that once a week offers students with a selection of produce, starches, protein, juices, and snacks from the SF-Marin Food Bank. “It’s totally run by students for the students and it’s become an opportunity for internships and capstone projects,” Sister Mary said. The students are now working with the food pantry’s government affairs manager, becoming involved in advocacy work.
Student leaders are also active in making their fellow students aware of the issue of homelessness. Sister Mary said, the student leaders recently collaborated with a local group that provides outreach to homeless youth to offer the students the opportunity to participate in a solidarity sleep-out.
“We sleep on the plaza using cardboard boxes and sleeping bags for protection,” she explained. The students do have some comforts – the availability of rest rooms and the knowledge that they can go back to their homes if they get too cold. Despite these advantages, Sister Mary said, the experience is one of solidarity with people who are homeless. “It’s being willing to experience for a night what other people have no choice but to experience,” she said.
Sister Mary also led an Alternative Spring Break that brought 10 students to the San Diego-Tijuana border to learn about immigration issues. During the March 7-14, 2020, trip, the students spent three days on each side of the border, learning about the issues and hearing from people who minister to immigrants – as well as from the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
Sister Mary’s ministry also involves supporting the students in their challenges. She pointed to financial insecurity as a major issue for many students. “There’s a lot of pressure that I think they put on themselves because many are first-generation in their family to go to college,” she explained. “They feel they have to be perfect.” Many also feel pressured by the idea of repaying student loans and feel the responsibility to be present to their family members at home.
Her work with the students is enhanced by the University community itself, which offers a supportive environment to the students, helping them deal with self-doubts and pressures. “The University is really trying to build a support system to help each student,” she said.
Sister Mary has learned a great deal from her ministry at Dominican University of California, such as developing her listening skills. In addition, she said, she has benefited from her service on the Board of Trustees of Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. “I’m looking at higher education from the perspective of a board member and a member of the Congregation that founded it,” she said. “I see higher education from both ends,” both as a staff member and as a board member who must be concerned about the “hands-on experience of the daily operations of a university.”
Sister Mary said her years of serving in campus ministry have taught her to be present to the students in various activities. “I really believe in the ministry of presence – going to the sport events, the theater events, the academic presentations and being visible so that if a student needs someone to talk to they find me approachable,” she said. “Students come to college, some knowing exactly what they want to do and some not having a clue, and to be one other person to help reflect back to them what’s going on in their life is a humbling and an exciting ministry.”