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International Education Week 2021 Student Profile: Leonard O'Connor

Leonard O’Connor is a first-year student at University of Dayton from Chicago majoring in International Studies with a focus on global migration and economic development. He currently works at the University of Dayton’s chapter of Americorps out of the Dayton Metro Library and is enrolled in the Global Competence Certificate Mini-course program.

What are some spaces that are important to you from growing up?

I grew up in Chicago, and a number of spaces were of great significance. One was my parents' house, where we had late dinners for us to connect as a family. Another was Oriole Park. I worked there and met many new people there from many different walks of life. I have also connected deeply with the routine I can build and the breather I can take from more intense spaces while at libraries and coffee shops, where I can collect myself and focus on more quiet and relaxing activities.

What is a challenging moment of intercultural learning you have encountered?

I am currently a representative of Dayton’s chapter at the Leadercorps Summit, a leadership program of Americorps, and will be next semester. We were planning a national day of service. I got to thinking about Dayton’s food desert, and thought about setting up an urban garden. I was aware that urban gardening already existed in Dayton, but my original thought was to set up our own in addition to the ones already there. One of my mentors attentively listened to my idea, and said ‘that is a great idea, but what about working to enhance the urban gardens already in existence in Dayton?’ This was an important teachable moment for me to move past thinking about myself contributing to service, and to consider what initiatives had already been started in the community and the actual conditions that were there already. Instead of letting my ego be wounded, I was able to participate in an established initiative through someone else’s guidance and my willingness to listen. It made sense to me to work on improving the resources and conditions of urban gardens in Dayton that the community had already established. And now it looks like this program will be continued into the Spring! When engaging in community-oriented projects, openness to putting more heads together and to learning from each other is key. Sometimes we have to pump the brakes on our own ideas and realize that others already have thought about them. Community service, as an outsider to a community, is by nature part of intercultural learning.

How does social justice intersect with international education?

As many doing the work of international education have long discerned, we cannot draw an artificial line in the sand when speaking about social justice and international education. I am community-oriented and locally driven in the work that I have done at Americorps in Dayton, and US-focused in the work I have done at community centers in my youth. I have yet to travel outside of the United States, but my work with a diversity of cultures including immigrants and refugees is definitely part of international education. Whether traveling abroad or not, it is absolutely essential to break out of the bubbles of focusing only on our local perspectives and in pushing social justice. My grandfather inspired me to be aware of social justice through his study and knowledge of Native American issues in the United States, but thinking more broadly about social justice, and linking local and global issues expands our view. For example, take the example of Native Americans in the United States in isolation, and you miss its connections to the struggles over land rights and colonization of native peoples all over the world. In this sense, I believe that knowledge of global issues and advocacy around them enhances and contributes to our work in local communities. However, thinking about all of the issues on a global scale, constantly looking outward at the totality of injustice can make things seem hopeless. How can we make an impact as individuals or in small local collectives? These are crucial questions to consider. Otherwise empathy fatigue can begin to set in and our effectiveness as servants to larger causes can suffer. When we make use of our specific skill sets, and devote time and resources to social change, however small our actions may seem in the larger scheme of things, they truly do matter. A small step is still a step. Therefore, international education combined with community-oriented action, both local and global in orientation, is an excellent means to change the world brick by brick.