Alumni Spotlight: Thomas Scharff

Thomas Scharff graduated from the Georgetown College in May 2012 with a JUPS minor and a Goverment major. After graduating, Thomas served for two years as a volunteer in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps International program in Tacna, Peru from 2012-2014. He currently works at the University Antonia Ruiz de Montoya, the one Jesuit university in Peru, as a coordinator and teacher at the English center.  

What was your thesis about?

My thesis developed a policy proposal for comprehensive US immigration reform, guided by principles of Catholic Social Teaching. I focused especially on the context of Latin American migrants to the United States, in how to construct a more humane immigration system that also considered practical and economic concerns. Catholic Social Teaching’s emphasis on welcoming the stranger, human dignity, and the preferential option for the poor underpinned my thesis. 

Have you continued exploring, researching, or investigating that topic post-graduation?

My thesis furthered in me a call to be more present with communities affected by and social realities related to migration.  

While I have not expanded upon my thesis with formal academic research, I have learned immensely from my experiences with people living in migratory contexts in the country of Peru, which offered me new insights into immigration reform. I served for two years as a volunteer in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps International program in Tacna, Peru, from 2012-2014. In Tacna, I worked as an English teacher in a Jesuit high school and also as an educator at a Jesuit social services center for at-risk youth.  In 2015 I have been living in Lima, Peru, working at the University Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, the one Jesuit university in Peru, as coordinator and teacher at the English department/center.  

In Tacna I spent a lot of time with children, almost all of whom were sons or daughters of migrants that came to the city from indigenous and rural areas of Peru. Peru has experienced a phenomenon of mass migration, primarily of people with indigenous backgrounds coming to coastal cities from the Andes Mountains and Amazonian jungle. People move in search of educational and economic opportunities. Many young people new to the cities grapple with questions of their cultural identity as they seek to “fit in” to their new environment, amidst a backdrop of divisions between these “newcomers” and already established groups. I also see this in Lima, where the university has a strong focus on receiving students on scholarship, who come from low-income and multi-cultural contexts across Peru. This creates a laboratory and opportunity for intercultural dialogue in higher education. In Tacna, I also witnessed colleagues at my JVC worksite in Tacna attend to large numbers of Colombians, Haitians and South Americans fleeing violent conflict in their home countries, en route towards a new life in Chile. The decision of a Chilean border agent in one day could make or break a family’s plans. I was humbled by the resilience and strength of many migrants and made aware of the exploitative world that emerges to prey on the poor.

I saw how any comprehensive, sustainable migration plan must create conditions for community empowerment and opportunity in the places from which people emigrate and also seek to create spaces for meaningful exchange between people of diverse backgrounds in the destination country or city. I plan to continue exploring the array of issues linked to migration in my future steps.

4. How has your experience with JUPS influenced or informed your post graduate life?

The beautiful thing about JUPS is that its central teaching -- the potential to harness conflict positively and use it to transform realities towards more just outcomes -- applies on every life scale – from the macro and global, to the local, to the interpersonal. As a Jesuit Volunteer in Tacna, Peru, JUPS taught me useful skills about drilling down to the underlying needs of each person in a conflict, and listening for those. This helped me when living in community with fellow volunteers, in accompanying students with whom I worked at school and the community center, and at the macro or community level of performing social analysis.

My educational work has allowed me to put into action the JUPS emphasis on Freirean education theory, and although challenging and there are times I may fall short, I strive to live that out as an educator. The horizontality inherent in the Freirean teaching model is an essential component to any authentic communication and dialogue I have with people in Peru. In the end, I am a guest in another people’s context and culture. When I found myself completely immersed, welcomed into Peruvians’ neighborhoods and homes, it grew clearer to me how dense culture is, and that I was only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of customs and history. Fully understanding another culture is a life-long process.  Formulas for social change simply cannot be dropped down on communities from above from people that live other realities; change only makes sense and has any relevance and meaning when constructed in consult with people who face the daily injustices that are being addressed and will be affected by any proposed change.

I am deciding between Master’s degree opportunities in the near future, and in the area I choose to pursue, I want to be attentive to bridging the macro and theoretical with the on-the-ground, micro-level reality.

5. Are there any memories from JUPS courses that have stuck with you today?

I remember my Intro to JUPS class where we did a classroom simulation among institutional actors intervening to transform a violent conflict situation in the Sudan. When we finished, most people recognized that isolated institutions working alone have limited power. Translating this to a local level, I found that in Tacna a central challenge was working in collaboration between community actors in an educational context. Many parents place an enormous amount of pressure on schools to be the end-all and be-all to their child’s formation and future. Schools are truly essential, but are by no means the only factor, and their impact needs to be reinforced and underpinned by parental guidance in the home. At the university in Lima, I assist English teachers in the course curriculum design and class methodology. We see progress in our work by developing a teacher team that is invested in a shared mission, that has a meaningful feedback role in shaping the program, and with effective teaching practices that makes English relevant to the everyday lives of the students. Increasingly today, the challenge is creating spaces of genuine, meaningful dialogue. Our world must make the shift in consciousness to recognize we can’t bring about change as mere individual actors or individual institutions – we must approach problem-solving from a collaborative perspective.

6. What have been the best and most challenging parts of working with JVC?

I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to have been a volunteer with JVC International in Tacna, Peru for two years. JVC has four pillars: social justice, spirituality/faith, community living, and simple living.

I loved the sense of purpose and mission as volunteer, and was grateful for the companionship with my fellow volunteers committed to service and to the values of the program. The intercultural aspect of serving internationally presents real challenges in culture shock for each volunteer, and this encourages mutual support in the volunteer community, especially in the first year.

I believe one of the most beautiful and challenging parts of JVC centers around “encountering the other.” That encounter can take many forms, and can awake inner excitement and fears. This can be in community living – you don’t get to choose who your housemates are, and each person has their own interpretation of how to live into the JVC values. Intentional community living requires lots of time and hard work, and it can also be a source of real joy and depth. I learned from my fellow JVs, in their positive examples, the way they challenged me to grow, and I will always cherish our mutual bonds.

Encountering the “other” is also a daily reality in working for social justice – in walking into a chaotic classroom to teach children who are communicating in slang-filled Spanish, carrying through their day realities from their home life that may be very different than my own. I experienced moments of failure, and, though very hard to deal with, it taught me a lot about separating one’s self-worth from the apparent immediate “results” of the work, trusting in the long-term goodness of the work and also in something larger, which for me was my faith and spirituality. I believe that what can be most critical at times is being present to cultivate the human bonds that come by accompanying people where they are at. The people and students who I came to know in my service will always be part of me. Acts of loving service have the potential to plants seeds of life and growth in the students and people with whom a volunteer relates, as well as in the volunteer. The mutual liberation in this form of service offers real hope in the world.

7. Is there anything else you would like the JUPS community to know? Any words of wisdom for current students?

Peruvians have taught me a lot through the way they allow interpersonal relationships to shape their lives. I had a beautiful experience witnessing peace-building through relationship-building at a conference I participated in as a Jesuit Volunteer called “Jovenes Rompiendo Fronteras,” roughly translated as “young people breaking down borders.” This is a four-day Jesuit conference held yearly between Bolivian, Chilean and Peruvian high school and college youth faith ministry members, seeking to break down stereotypes and longstanding divisions between the three countries dating back to a 1880s-era war. Although there was theological and social reflection at the conference, what I saw as the more powerful change agent for the youth were the friendships they forged between each other: once you are friends with someone, how can you hate that person’s country and culture, or talk about them as less than fully human?

At Georgetown, it is a human temptation to stay inside the bubble of comfortable friendships with people who are similar, whether in background or in ways of thinking. To offer a few words of wisdom for current students, I’d say step outside of that: build new relationships. Engage in a respectful debate with someone you might imagine you totally disagree with, question your assumptions, and meet people from a different background or who have a different first language than your own. It can be on campus and off campus. Relationship-building is life-giving and is the root of change. I believe that doing so, with genuine humanity and on a personal, concrete level, has the potential to transform others and will help transform your own self in subtle and big ways, to turn any theoretical and classroom learning into the knowledge of the heart and gut that is necessary to work in a long-term manner for change and justice.