Volunteering through the Dorothy Day program helped Victoria Wanko ’21, an elementary education major, connect her faith with social justice. The program also opened her eyes to the social side of spirituality on campus.
“Someone Is Always There to Watch Over Me”
Victoria Wanko ’21 was in the dark when it came to deciding on a college. Research university? State school? Cozy liberal arts campus?
“I was a last-minute decider,” she confesses.
Things changed during a fall Open House event at Elms, where she saw a slideshow about the Dorothy Day service program, named for the famous Catholic social activist. For a student like Victoria — who grew up going to church camp and singing in her Methodist church’s choir — this program symbolized the perfect blend of faith and justice.
“After seeing that slideshow, I had that cheesy feeling, like ‘this is where I’m meant to be,’ ” she said. “I didn’t tour any other schools after this one. I didn’t want to.”
Spirituality plays a major part in Victoria’s day-to-day experience at Elms. Even something as simple as attending a church service takes on a different meaning here.
“After church, it’s not like it’s just ‘over,’ or that I can’t talk about it anymore,” she said. “Here, I’m able to express how I feel about religion and God to my friends, and they accept me for who I am.”
Prioritizing her beliefs helped Victoria build a support system that works on multiple levels. When conversation and discussion isn’t right for the occasion, she often turns to quiet contemplation.
“When I go to the reflection pond, sometimes I just sit there and pray, and just talk, me and God,” she said. “It gives me the strength to feel like I can get through the day because someone is always there to watch over me.”
Direction through Dorothy Day
Academically, Victoria keeps herself busy as an elementary education major and history and music double minor. She’s also involved in the Elms Choir, Sophomore Leadership, the Fontbonne Scholar program, and the women’s swim team and cheerleading team.
The program that had the biggest impact on her, however, was the Dorothy Day program.
The summer before her first year at Elms, Victoria spent a week volunteering at Gray House in Springfield, MA. Spending time at a social service agency was eye-opening because she had the chance to help residents study for their citizenship tests. This experience was so rewarding that she signed up to be a group leader during her sophomore year.
“Going back to Gray House and seeing the progress we made last year, and how it continued this year, really made me feel great,” she said.
As a group leader, Victoria focused on recreating the experience she originally had as a first-year student. Having the chance to meet people before classes officially begin can set the tone for the entire school year.
“I didn’t really know many people when I came to Elms, but I was excited for the program,” she said. “It was just such an easy transition, being here a week early and connecting with the 30 people that were there.”
All Faiths Welcome
Open discussion of religion, faith, and spirituality is a defining feature of Elms. For Victoria, the welcoming atmosphere of the campus community broke down any lingering stereotypes she might have had about attending a school with a religious affiliation.
“There are just so many religions and cultures, and everyone is so unique — it’s amazing for me to think that we all ended up in the same place,” she said.