Merrimack Austin Scholars Share Service Learning Experiences

Religious and theological studies students and staff presented at Tunisian universities, spoke with Augustian leaders at Vatican City.
Four Merrimack Austin Scholars pose with
Matthew Cavoli ’23; Max Beland ’24; Itzel Guzman ’24; and Maira McCarthy ’24 pose with Bishop Luis Marín de San Martín, undersecretary for the Synod of Bishops.

This past November, four Merrimack students went on a whirlwind four-day tour of Tunisia and Rome to promote service learning and the teachings of Saint Augustine. 

The trip was organized by ATLAS, a Tunisian non-government organization focused on promoting self-sustained development in the country. Joseph Kelley, professor of religious and theological studies at Merrimack and one of the faculty members on the trip, previously participated in the organization’s Augustinian Days in Carthage, an academic forum for contemporary studies in the thought of Saint Augustine. 

Then, in November, ATLAS invited Merrimack to discuss the Austin Scholars program at the University of Carthage and L’Institut Supérieur des Langues de Tunis. The universities hope to supplement their in-class education with off-campus community service projects in the near future just as Austin Scholars do at Merrimack. 

“They are aware of our emphasis on being a contemporary Catholic college, as outlined in the Agenda for the Future, and of our long tradition of interfaith dialogue,” Kelley explained. 

Out of the College’s current 300 Austin Scholars, Kelley chose four to present along with him – Matthew Cavoli ’23, Max Beland ’24, Maira McCarthy ’24 and Itzel Guzman ’24. 

“I accepted the invitation to the trip because I saw it as an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and do something incredibly interesting that would help so many people,” said McCarthy. “I’ve never done something this impactful and wanted to use it as an opportunity for personal growth and to help others worldwide.”

The Merrimack students’ presentation was based around surveys taken by staff and students. Staff, for example, were asked if they believe service was a positive addition to the class and if they’ve seen their students grow from their service experiences. Students were asked about their previous service endeavors and how it may have helped them develop as young adults and future professionals.

“Based on those questions we were able to use students’ quotes on their experience and present those to the students in Tunisia,” Guzman explained. “Finally, in our presentation we explain each of our experiences that we had with service.”

In turn, the Merrimack scholars received first-hand experience on cultures outside of the U.S. 

Dr. Mahmoud Ben Romdhane, the president of sciences, letters and arts at Tunisian Academy, spoke with the Merrimack students about the current political landscape in Tunisia. 

“While they are in a constitutional crisis, Dr. Romdhane believes civil society in the country is strong because of relatively high levels of literacy and education, close ties with Europe and Western countries, the strong position of women in their society and a practice of Islam that integrates moral values and ethics with a respect for diversity in society,” Kelley recalled. 

Prior to arriving in Tunisia, the scholars spent two days in Rome to meet with Augustinian leaders in Vatican City. Guzman recalled a meeting with Bishop Luis Marín de San Martín O.S.A., undersecretary for the Synod of Bishops, who the students spoke with about the state of the church in young Americans’ lives. 

“He told us how all young people have a place at the table and our presence is necessary in this conversation,” she said. “He doesn’t want young people to be spectators and instead wants us to be active participants. He wants us to know that they are changing things slowly but they are changing.”