LOYOLA'S POINT OF LIGHT Erin Swezey lives and teaches to serve


In soup kitchens, shelters, clinics, schools and tumble-down homes, Erin D. Swezey's army is hard at work.

Hundreds of freshly scrubbed Loyola College students are rolling up their sleeves and confronting poverty in the city's grittiest neighborhoods, in Appalachian mountain towns, in Mexican orphanages.

Since arriving four years ago as Loyola's director of community service, Ms. Swezey has mobilized the campus into a hub of good works and good faith.

That's not to say Loyola's party-hearty reputation has evaporated. But under Ms. Swezey's ministry, the school's Jesuit ideal, "Men and women for others," has found new vitality and application in a city that needs.

Last year, more than 60 percent of Loyola's undergraduate student body of about 3,250 participated in community-service projects. "If she ever sat back and thought back of all that goes on in the city as a result of her work, . . . I think she would be overwhelmed," said Sister Catherine Gugerty, who runs a campus program that gives students the opportunity to live in Baltimore's inner city.

For Ms. Swezey, watching suburban kids blossom into responsible, spiritual young adults as they encounter hardship, perhaps for the first time, is its own reward.

"Often times, students from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds can't always appreciate poverty . . . until they can look at their own spiritual brokenness and how materialism really affects them," Ms. Swezey said. "They really learn those values from people who are lacking economically or educationally, but are very, very deeply, faith-filled, community-oriented people."

Barely 5 feet tall, with a trim haircut and vivid blue eyes framed by violet-blue glasses, Ms. Swezey exudes athletic energy, even though she's six months pregnant. When discussing Loyola's service renaissance in a sunny office stacked with books and files at the Andrew White Student Center, she is as focused as a laser.

Her vocabulary, rich with such phrases as "faith component," "change agent," "values formation," reflects the tandem career she has forged in campus ministry and higher education administration.

Good works are not enough, Ms. Swezey says. She insists on follow-up "reflections" to discuss the significance of community service. As they share highlights and disappointments, student participants also find support from their peers. "Students begin to make connections with their faith and social issues that come from [speaking with] students doing a similar kind of service work," she said.

For example, reflections were an integral part of a recent spring break immersion experience. Ten students spent a week living above the Beans and Bread soup kitchen in East Baltimore, ate on a food-stamp budget and performed volunteer work around the city. It was a draining and occasionally upsetting week for the students, two of whom were forced to eat in a soup kitchen because they had no money.

In the evenings, when they came together, students reflected on the day and came to see the downtrodden in a way that gave them strength to continue service work.

During one reflection, a student asked another, "What do you do when you see a homeless person on the street now?"

"I stop and I look at their eyes," she replied. For these students, the homeless are no longer anonymous street figures to avoid. "They are all people with a story."

Community service has become a national cause celebre, the path to a collective social conscious as well as an alternative source of human energy in an economy down for the count.

The Clinton administration has proposed a widespread community-service program for students. In Maryland high schools, 75 hours of community service will soon be mandatory for graduation. And colleges of all stripes have created community-service programs in which participation is often a class requirement.

Spiritually based agenda

Even in the thick of this lively public dialogue, Loyola College's spiritually based community-service agenda stands out, thanks in large part to Ms. Swezey. "She's just unbelievable, what she's been able to do with people," said Loyola's president, the Rev. Joseph A. Sellinger.

In four years, the Center for Values and Service, co-founded by Ms. Swezey and a faculty member, the Rev. Timothy B. Brown, has grown from a skeleton crew to a staff of several administrators, a secretary and 12 student coordinators. The center's budget, originally about $6,000, has increased tenfold, Ms. Swezey says.

It has been fortified with handsome grants, and students routinely organize fund-raisers so that they, too, can donate money to targeted programs. The Class of 1992 pledged $15,000 and muscle to a Habitat for Humanity project in Baltimore's Sandtown neighborhood.

Ms. Swezey's networking efforts have yielded more than 100 community-service opportunities for Loyola students, faculty and staff, including Loyola's three partnership programs: the University of Maryland Baltimore County Choice program for juvenile offenders, the Learning Bank literacy program and the St. Frances Academy tutorial program.

Student participation in the nationally recognized community-service program has swelled. Last school year, more than 1,000 students donated nearly 37,000 volunteer hours to service projects. In contrast, fewer than 400 students gave 10,300 volunteer hours the previous year.

Project Mexico takes students to orphanages in Tijuana and Ticate. Appalachian Outreach participants travel to rural towns in Kentucky, Mississippi, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Western Maryland to repair homes and work with the poor. Similarly designed "weekend plunges" and spring-break immersions allow students to taste life in a shelter, assist Baltimore's homeless and perform inner-city home repairs.

Ms. Swezey has also recruited a core group of 40 professors who are incorporating some aspect of community service within their curricula, a way of integrating public service into the fabric of the college. That's no mean feat, says Father Brown. "It's very hard to get a faculty member to respect somebody who is not a faculty member."

Throughout Ms. Swezey's childhood, social justice issues were not just theoretical talk. Raised in a family of 11 in progressive Palo Alto, Calif., she was exposed early and often to political debates. During the Vietnam War, one brother "went through the process and reflection of becoming a conscientious objector. He was very much supported by my parents and community tTC members and our minister," she said.

Impressed by Truth

A Sunday school encounter with the narrative of abolitionist Sojourner Truth also left a strong impression, Ms. Swezey says. "I remember being so moved by this woman's faith journey to social justice -- not only for black Americans, but also for women."

In Palo Alto, a prosperous university town, the Swezeys were not well-off, which fostered a sense of humility within the family, Ms. Swezey says. "Sometimes that was difficult; other times, it was a very positive thing."

As a 24-year-old graduate student at Michigan State, Ms. Swezey, strongly influenced by a local priest who "preached a lot on social issues and our own baptismal calling to serve," converted from her family's Protestant faith to Catholicism. "I really felt called to deepen my own spiritual life," she said.

Ms. Swezey moved to Oregon, where she worked as an administrator at Willamette University and became active in the nuclear freeze movement. But again, Ms. Swezey felt a call -- this time, to become a minister. She went to Seattle, where she completed a Catholic lay ministry training program.

After serving briefly as a Catholic campus minister at a Lutheran school, Ms. Swezey became director of campus ministry at Seattle University and completed a master's degree in pastoral ministry. It was her "beginning with the Jesuits," she said.

Reviving dormant program

From Seattle, Ms. Swezey came to Baltimore with her husband, Tim Leary, assistant dean of students at Loyola. With great enthusiasm, the reformer stirred into action the school's dormant community-service program.

"Her service is to help others serve," said Mr. Leary, "to help students . . . open themselves to learn from those they serve. That's a difficult task, helping students to make sense of what they're doing."

As others who have dedicated themselves to bettering the human condition, Ms. Swezey often grapples with her own shortcomings, Mr. Leary says. "It's very easy to espouse these wonderful ideals; it's quite another to live them out day-to-day. . . . That's a bit of a personal struggle, to be more consistent in thought and in action."

Ms. Swezey, in other words, is human. "I think the worst thing you could do with this [article]," Mr. Leary tells a reporter, is "play [her] up as extraordinary. That would be bothersome to Erin, to place her on a pedestal as unreachable and unapproachable or in any way different from what she might see what her role in life is."

In fact, Ms. Swezey's talent rests in large part in her approachable manner. "I have a real ability to be able to see the potential in students and see their gifts even if they can't see them," she said.

Students who know her agree. "She gives students ownership in their programs," said senior Christopher Longmore, a student coordinator from Leonardtown who has worked with Ms. Swezey for four years. "She takes steps to get people recruited and then lets us run with our own projects."

In turn, students empowered by newly tapped resources of faith and capability recruit classmates, allowing the program to expand under its own steam.

Ms. Swezey recognizes students' personal needs as well, Mr. Longmore says. "She does make us put class and ourselves ahead of what we do. If she sees us burning out, she will tell us to take some time off. . . . She really looks out for us."

In turn, Ms. Swezey hopes that the students who come through Loyola will never be the same, "that because of the kind of education they receive here academically and in other aspects, that they will be different citizens in their world," she said.

"They will look at issues differently. They will vote differently. That they will be in a company or corporation or nonprofit, wherever they choose to work, where they will speak with a different voice, and instill different values. I think that's beginning to happen."


Sharon Boyle, a Loyola College junior from Ridgewood, N.J., is one of many students whose lives have been transformed by Erin Swezey. Initially she balked when required to perform community service as part of a "Forgiveness and Reconciliation" class.

But Ms. Boyle, 21, was so inspired by the troubled juveniles she tutored in the UMBC Choice program -- "children I would never have met in life" -- she volunteered for two additional semesters and next fall will become the program's Loyola campus coordinator.

Through her work at Choice, Ms. Boyle says she realized the "real significance of a Jesuit education." Without a community service requirement, she probably would have graduated "without getting involved," she says. "And now, I'll be organizing [the program] next year."

She has also changed her major from speech pathology to social work.


Current position: Director of community service at Loyola College.

Age: 34.

Education: Undergraduate degree from the University of California, Davis. Master's degree in higher education administration from Michigan State University. Master's in pastoral ministry from Seattle University.

Married to: Tim Leary, assistant dean of students at Loyola College. (It is the third educational institution they have worked at together.)

On becoming a mother this summer: "I see it as a time to really focus my life energies in some different directions. And being in some ways more nurturing to myself and to my immediate family. I'm sure that within time, I will be itching to be back at work."

A favorite thing to do: Visit art museums and galleries. She is anxious to see the Alfred Sisley show at the Walters.

Current favorite book: "Animal Dreams," by Barbara Kingsolver. The book, about two sisters pursuing justice in different ways, "was a very, very, powerful book for me. I share it with many students, friends and colleagues."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad