DePaul University: Catholic Social Teaching Meets the Troubles of the American Education System

This morning we left our hotel in Chigaco’s Chinatown and rushed for the L train to Downtown Chicago to visit DePaul University, the biggest Roman Catholic university in the United States.

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We were eager to learn about the Latino community in Chicago and issues related to migration and the American educational system.

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J.D. Bindenagel, Vice President of DePaul, and a former diplomat to the three Germanies (during and after the Cold War), warmly welcomed us and remarked the interesting binational composition of our study tour, twenty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Mr. Bindenagel gave us a brief introduction to DePaul University. It was founded in 1898 as an alternative institute of higher education for Catholics and Jews, who were at the time excluded from the other two Chicagoan universities due to nativist sentiment. While open to students of all religious affiliations, DePaul is grounded in Catholic social teaching, manifest in a focus on poor students, many of whom are the first in their family to pursue higher education.

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Crystal Pfeiffer, a student at DePaul, told us about her voluntary work for an immigrant rights group called AIRE (Achieving Immigrant Rights and Equality). Crystal told us that she became in interested in immigration issues while taking Catholic theology classes. Her organization cooperates with other grassroots groups and engages in weekly visits to Latino communities on Chicago’s Westside, where members offer possibilities to communicate in English to Latina women, many of whom are socially isolated as housewives and do not have many opportunities to practice English. Crystal pointed out how difficult it is for many Latino migrants to negotiate integration efforts with family commitments, primarily the economic need to work to support the family. She also mentioned how in some primarily Latino neighborhoods issues like garbage collection, insufficient construction of schools, and overpopulation have been long-term problems.

Vijay Pendakur, the director of DePaul University’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs talked to us about his work with ‘higher risk’ college students, who usually share several of the following characteristics: they are a) students of color, b) first-generation students, or c) from low-income backgrounds.

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Pendakur told us he uses a historical materialist approach to contextualize the dominant American national narrative, which depicts immigration to the United States as monocausal. To empower his students, he helps them to identify the dominant national narrative and reclaim history from it. In practice, this involves pointing out the various push and pull factors that influence migration.

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In other words, he tells students that migrants do not leave their country just because they all believe the U.S. to be a superior place to live, but also because the U.S. depends on a certain cheap labor force that migrants provide, or because people are persecuted in their home country for various reasons.

Even though exposure to alternative historical narratives helps higher risk students, Pendakur told us, they are often torn between concerning themselves with critical theory and pursuing financial degrees, which are likely to give them power through financial stability.

Mr. Pendakur stressed that although DePaul University offers need-based tuition programs to help students from poor backgrounds, it cannot solve the structural crisis of the American public educational system. Public schools are underfunded and lack educational quality, resulting in even the top students of many public schools barely having a chance to score sufficiently high in standardized admission test for college. Therefore, only a very tiny fraction of graduates from Chicago’s public schools make it into universities. Minorities going to poor-quality neighborhood schools therefore have a structural disadvantage. DePaul University tries to steer a balance between producing marketable numbers of graduates and staying true to its Catholic roots.

Benedikt Schäfer


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