Senior Project has been a senior tradition at St. Louis U. High for the past 50 years. Every year, seniors look forward to going out into their communities and serving the most vulnerable. However, due to complications of the Covid-19 pandemic, seniors had to switch last year to an advocacy project called the Grande Project. This year, due to the remaining risk of the pandemic, the Grande Project will once again replace traditional senior projects.
For last year’s Grande Project, seniors were tasked with choosing a marginalized group or social justice issue such as abortion, enviormental justice, or human trafficiking. They then would interview professionals within their field, present their findings, and advocate for said group in a creative and meaningful way.
Despite Campus Ministry’s best efforts, they found that it was not feasible to provide each senior with a normal senior project experience this year. They came to this conclusion after surveying all of SLUH’s partner organizations where seniors volunteered. Of the 60 traditional senior project sites that SLUH works with, only 12 replied that they would most likely be taking volunteers in January, with most saying that they could only take a smaller number of volunteers. This resulted in there only being 40 volunteer spots for a class of 239 seniors.
“We surveyed all of our sites back in May with responses still shaky but many replied with a hopeful yes,” said campus minister Simonie Anzalone. “In August we tried to track down all the sites again, while we were still hopeful at the time, the Delta variant has had a significant impact and the responses we received were pretty disappointing.”
After this disappointing survey, Campus Ministry reached out to 20 other sites around the St. Louis metropolitan area to see if they would be interested in taking senior volunteers for the month of January. However, only one site replied saying that they would most likely be willing to take volunteers come January.
“Again the response was pretty disappointing so this time I reached out to the other high school campus ministers in the St. Louis region and I received similar results, most of them were cancelling their projects again or lowering the standards,” said Anzalone. “That gave us more confidence going into the meeting thinking that we had done everything we could but the circumstances were above us.”
It was therefore determined that seniors would once again pivot to the Grande Project. The announcement was made this past Monday at a senior class meeting, and immediately students began voicing their disappointment.
“I was very bummed when I heard that Senior Project would be Grande project 2.0,” said senior Alex Mittendorf. “I am hopeful that it will be better than the experience last year’s seniors had because they will be able to use the feedback to make it better.”
“I know that a lot of guys were really looking forward to getting to have the experience and the switch to the Grande project was a real let down,” said senior Joe Labarge. “I also know Campus Ministry will do everything that they can to make the project as worthwhile as possible.”
In addition to the students, the senior parents took to Facebook Monday night to share their displeasure with the Class of 2022 mothers Facebook group chat. The mothers began suggesting potential alternatives to the traditional service sites and even went as far to say that they would help to coordinate with different and new service sites.
Teachers too were initially disappointed for the seniors and hopeful that key aspects of the project are being reworked to provide their students with a better experience.
“I was on the one hand disappointed that our seniors wouldn’t have that immersive community experience in the field, working with people on the margins of our society,” said English teacher David Callon. “But I am glad that we are going to hold space for them in a more deliberate way than we did last year for them to do a deep dive on an issue.”
Much of the negative response from this year’s students was based on the comments of last year’s seniors.
“I really appreciated the work of Campus Ministry, I think especially during my year there was no way to do the Senior Project and they did their best with being dealt a bad hand,” said Carter Fortman ’21. “However, it was not a great replacement for the senior project. In my opinion it made the Senior Project setting too academic, which is something we get enough of during actual school. The thing that’s so magical about Senior Project is you get to experience something outside of SLUH and the Grande Project didn’t replicate that for me.”
Noting these concerns, Campus Ministry sent a survey to the senior class asking for their thoughts and opinions on how the Grande Project went after competition last year. The senior class responded with a wide range of compliments and criticism, commenting on how they thought the Grande Project went and where there was room for improvement.
“I think the Grande Project worked well in that it challenged us to think about issues and problems that need to be remedied and how we as students can go about bringing much needed change,” said Matthew Wilmes, ’21. “However, at times it felt more like a homework assignment where I turned in the project and it was done. I would have loved to continue to pursue the issue of my topic on my own time but as we were still in school and given other assignments I didn’t have as much time as I would have wanted to spend on it.”
To respond to the feedback the class of 2021 gave, Campus Ministry has been working on devising a revised Grande Project seeking to solve some of the issues from last year.
“We felt like there is a real opportunity to hone in on what the project was about and to work on better defining what the project is about,” said Anzalone. “We have the opportunity to make it clearer and more meaningful for this class since the option for direct service is not possible.”
Campus Ministry has already begun discussing revisions that they want to be made this year. These revisions include setting a designated two-week period for the seniors to focus on their project and not having the students participate in the Ignatian Family Teach-In.
“Students were frustrated because it felt like homework,” said Anzalone. “We took the Ignatian Family Teach-In out of the equation because it felt like there were not enough rewards to spend that much time in theology class tuning into those sessions. Instead we are going to have Brenna Davis from ISJ to teach the whole class on advocacy.”
To help students not feel overwhelmed, Campus Ministry plans on having seniors complete many of the preparation stages during three studium periods throughout the first semester. Then in January, students will have between 10-12 days to complete the project without having to worry about school work.
“Students will have all of that time to work on their projects,” said Anzalone. “We will have workshops to learn about their marginalized groups and how to create your projects. There will be space in between each of those sessions to complete work. Nothing will overlap with your other classes and hopefully none of it will overlap with homework.”
With many things in this world of Covid changing on a daily basis, the Grande Project is unlikely to change back to Senior Project even if conditions would happen to improve.
“I don’t think the plan will adapt at all at this point, given that we asked our sites about January and that was what their response was about January,” said Anzalone. “The other piece also being that this time right now is when you would normally choose a site and there is a great amount of prep work that goes into getting you to your service site.”
While many students are disappointed that they will not be able to go out into the community this January, Campus Ministry is hopeful and positive that the Grande Project will nevertheless be an impactful experience for seniors.
“Our goal is to give seniors something that is impactful,” said Anzalone. “We want to provide them with a project that makes them feel like they are creating some sort of difference.”
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