Separate Lives, Shared Interests Converge
If someone were to write a recipe for UST alums Erin Allison (right) and Jennifer Schmalz (left), the ingredients no doubt would be spunk, spirituality and social justice. And a deep caring and commitment.
The two don’t know each other, and they come from very different backgrounds. Allison is the first in her family to graduate from college; Schmalz decided to go to UST because many of her aunts and uncles graduated from St. Thomas.
Yet, in their chosen careers, they eventually want to work where they can do the most good for the people they have chosen to serve. They both graduated in International Studies and both will pursue their master’s degrees in social work at the University of Houston this fall.
And both have been working in non-profit relief agencies that target the people whose lives they hope to improve.
Allison’s relief work began when she was in high school in Albuquerque, N.M. through . the Amigos de las Americas, a volunteer program for high school students who go through a six-week total immersion into Third World cultures, usually in remote areas, while performing a service such as teaching public health education as Allison did in Honduras.
The 29-year-old attended UST graduated in the spring of 2001 on full scholarship. She had attended a Basilian high school and wanted to go to a Basilian college. At UST, she minored in Spanish and focused her attention on Latin American studies. Her father was Latino, although he never played a part in raising her. Her mother supported her two children by working sometimes two to three low-paying jobs. They lived with Allison’s grandmother, a school teacher at St. Pius, “my biggest and most inspirational influence in my life because she has always in involved in community outreach and social justice activities,” Allison said. Her grandmother also taught Allison to write letters to legislators to advocate for food security for domestic and international populations.
Schmalz, 26, graduated in 2004 and began volunteering at the YMCA International, a local refugee resettlement agency to fulfill the Social Justice requirement of the Honors Program, which required 100 hours of volunteer work. However, she became so entrenched with the issues – and dealing with families that had just arrived in the United States – that she continued working there long past the required time – two years to be exact. Schmalz wrote her thesis about refugee and asylum policies at the encouragement of Dr. Gustavo Wensjoe, director for the Center for International Studies.
That’s another similarity between the two: both drew heavily on the advice and inspiration Wensjoe provided to further them along in their studies and careers.
After graduation, Schmalz pursued a master’s in political science from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She is completing her thesis while working part time at Interfaith Ministries in their refugee resettlement department here.
“When you pick them up at the airport and they get their bags, some of them have only a small carry-on bag, and that’s everything they own,” Schmalz said.
She’s not sure if she’ll stay with non-profit agencies or take a job with the government – “Wherever I can do the most good. The issue of forced migration, particularly refugees, became a passion for me, especially with the kids. Before they get here, they have horrible experiences; they’ve seen people murdered; they’ve seen violence.”
The Office for Refugee Resettlement, a department within the U.S. State Department, never has enough money for the people they seek to resettle, especially for families with seven or eight children, she said. “And we get donated items that I don’t think anyone would want, and we bring them to some of the resettled families who act like it’s the greatest gift they’ve ever gotten.”
After Allison graduated, she volunteered with Jesuit Volunteers International in the remote jungle of Belize, working as a teacher and a counselor at a high school for two years.The district she lived in was called “the forgotten district” because it received few funds from the government, and many homes didn’t have running water. The country has an array of diverse cultures because it was a British colony originally, and Mayans and slaves from Africa, Eastern India and China were imported to support the British logging industry. The cultures used to stay separate from each other, but that is changing because these different nationalities of people are going to common high schools, and literacy rates are going up.
She plans to become a psychotherapist and likely work with at-risk teens through Catholic Charities. But, right now, she is getting used to a new way of life.
After her stint in Belize, in July of 2006, Allison married a chemical engineer who works at a German chemical company in Houston who was introduced to her by a mutual friend. After all her travels that required a long-distance relationship, living together was a joy Allison hadn’t anticipated.
“It wasn’t until after we got married that we spent more than 10 days together,” she said.