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Mark Laboe, DePaul University

2011 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Panelist


Mark-Laboe-135x150.jpgLoboe provides leadership for University Ministry and Community Service programs, and
 is a member of the DePaul student affairs leadership team. He holds a
 master’s of divinity from Loyola University Chicago, and attended the
 University of Notre Dame as an undergraduate where he completed a 
bachelor’s degree in cconomics and theology. Before coming to DePaul, he
 worked 10 years in non-profit management, as well as in a wide
 variety of ministry settings.

Professional Title: Associate Vice President in Student Affairs, DePaul University

In what kinds of research and other projects are you involved at the Department of University Ministry at DePaul that relate to character development?

Essentially, everything we do through our DePaul ministry and community service programs is about character development.  Our patron saint and namesake, St. Vincent de Paul, spoke often of the cultivation of virtue, by which he meant, simply put, an integrity and consistency between one’s values or beliefs and one’s actions.  We hope to cultivate and support in our students at DePaul a commitment to service, to justice and to faith–that is, a sense that their lives are about more than only themselves and their own “social climbing,” but rather about how they might contribute to the betterment of the human community for the common good.  We often call this “socially responsible leadership.” So, we want to study and understand how to do that effectively in a way consistent with our Catholic-Vincentian mission.

We initiated a study six years ago, which we call our Faith and Civic Engagement (FACE)initiative with this in mind.  It involves a survey to our student body to explore how, if, and in what ways they connect (or don’t) their faith commitments to service and civic engagement. We understand “faith” in the broad sense.  But, having said that, we believe and have seen that it is very important to include and understand students’ particular religious commitments as potential and frequent assets to their commitment to and action on behalf of the common good.  So often with religion the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater, in that many in this day and age see formal religion as a negative.  Out of this initiative, we joined together with other schools and regional Campus Compact organizations, to initiate a bi-annual conference in this same vein, the National Faith, Justice and Civic Learning Conference, which will be held again this June 2011 in Chicago.

In addition, I have worked with a number of different individual students, staff and faculty to do smaller research projects on student spirituality and interfaith engagement, and service, civic engagement, and social justice.

Having said that I do not consider myself a researcher nor even “scholar” in the traditional sense.  Rather, I see my role as a leader and administrator to encourage, enable, and connect others together for the purposes of imagining and exploring research related to these dimensions of students’ lives—faith, spirituality, service, civic engagement, social justice. So, I have often played more the role of catalyst by identifying and pulling together others at our institution to generate research and programming in these areas, including faculty, staff and students, than I have in doing it myself.

How did your two year lay mission experience in Santiago, Chile, prepare you for your position as Associate Vice President for University Ministry?

I’m not sure there is a straight line connection, but there is no question that this experience and all that went with it had a tremendous impact on me personally and deepened my commitment to work towards a more just human community as part of my life’s vocation. This experience deepened my belief that “community” is necessary for social change. No one does this work alone, and there are in all latent assets and gifts which they can and will contribute given the right encouragement and environments to do so. Chileans taught me community.

Fluency in Spanish is certainly now a concrete skill that I can contribute in my work, and I believe I am prepared for a deeper understanding of the growing Latino population in the U.S. and in higher education. My experience living in a socio-economically poor community in a foreign environment for two years gave me a heightened sensitivity to poverty and privilege, which translates in a variety of ways to education and to DePaul’s mission.  I am a passionate advocate as well for study abroad experiences and opportunities for students to gain a different perspective on their own reality. This plays into my belief in service learning and interfaith engagement.

What main ideas do you hope to convey to your audience at the Institute that might translate to programs or practices that relate to moral development?

I often tell others that as a baseline, I’d like to be able to say that students will walk out of DePaul understanding and believing that their life is not all about them.  If there is anything that troubles me and that I want to address in my work, it is first and foremost the entrenched individualism of our culture in the U.S. and in higher education, because I believe it is so important for our society to do so.  I hope to cultivate a vision of, commitment to, and education for the common good.  Clearly, there is a lot contributing to this issue and one can approach it from many angles.

So, how is this best done?  I believe—as I think many others do—that it is important to build on the natural developmental questions and experiences of students. They want and need a sense of community. They want and need a sense of vocation and purpose. They are asking and discerning what is good, true and beautiful. They want and need experiences of diversity, where they can “cross-over” to engage the reality of another, gain understanding, and return to their own reality and perspective transformed because of those encounters. They ask critical questions of our society’s institutions, often pointing out inconsistencies and a lack of integrity. Building these elements into the programs and practices of engaging students—in our case, I’ll discuss community service programs and interfaith engagement programs—is an effective way to cultivate the moral development and imagination of students.

I would like to suggest also that in many situations in higher education, it seems to me we often seem to avoid the “moral conversation.”  We settle for an uncritical relativism. What many fear is that such moral conversation leads to moralizing, and religion is often the easy scapegoat in this regard.What is tragic is that the “moral conversation” is one we need and ought to have for deep learning, that it is a conversation that students deeply hunger to have when engaged in an effective way, and a conversation in which religious traditions are uniquely equipped to contribute.  It leads me to ask what exactly the fear is—and whose fear is it? Is it our own discomfort entering into places and conversations where we are not “experts” but in which we are living and seeking to better understand the same questions as our students, and where we are all learners?

I also believe that we need to do a better job being the community we seek to build in our society—that is, modeling among ourselves as faculty and staff the cooperation, care, and justice we want our students to contribute to. As some have said, “We get who we are.”

What advice do you have for students today in searching for meaning and fulfillment in their lives?

I think it is perhaps most important that students find a way to discover their own natural curiosity and desire to learn.  There is, I think, nothing more powerful and generative than this with regards to their development and their finding meaning and fulfillment.   Sadly, I think students often need to go through a journey of un-learning or “detox” before they discover this. Culturally, they have absorbed often the message that meaning is about achieving individual “success” or only about seeking pleasure or comfort. They have been taught, for example, that experiencing vulnerability before others and in community is a sign of weakness or failure, and that always being “plugged in” is how one best engages socially.

College offers a wonderful opportunity for students to enter into situations that are new and different, whether they are experiences of diversity, of engaging new ways of thinking, or of being challenged to reflect and develop interiority.  In our Vincentian tradition, we believe one essential experience in learning is engaging directly the lives, realities, and questions of people who are poor and marginalized.

Of course, given my particular vantage point, I want to invite students to consider the wealth of resources and wisdom found in religious traditions, whose very existence and purpose can be seen in one light as engaging human beings and communities in the ultimate questions of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment and in encouraging a related set of practices and behaviors emerging from this inquiry.

Finally, I suggest that meaning and fulfillment are found, ultimately, by finding a way to give one’s life away joyfully in service to others and to the betterment of society.

What advice do you have for faculty and student affairs administrators in helping to guide students to pursue meaning in their lives?

Most simply, I believe we have to be willing to “go there” with students—the spiritual conversation, the moral conversation, the questions where we ourselves are unsure and potentially even feel vulnerable to uncertainty and confusion—in order to truly contribute effectively to their (and our) learning in this area. To journey together.  That is a different way than the norm to bring our own learning, life experience, knowledge and wisdom into a relationship, and it cultivates a genuine appreciation for learning in students.

Please add any information that you would like to include in the featured interview not covered above.

It may be evident that I have a rather non-traditional path to higher education.  I am not a researcher.  I am not a scholar, traditionally speaking.  I don’t really even consider myself a “student affairs professional,” though I am in fact that.  These are not the avenues by which I arrived in my current position. Rather, I am a lay, non-ordained minister who studied theology. I have worked with the sick, elderly and dying.  I worked in non-profit management and in that capacity worked with dozens of different community-based agencies, schools, and churches seeking to address social problems and needs and with hundreds of college graduates who sought to apply their learning to address these issues. I accompanied them in their journeys.  And, I have circled back to the belief that WHO we are forming and educating in our schools is a critical question to which I want to find a way to contribute. I believe the college experience and the young adult years are, as Sharon Daloz Parks called them, the “critical years” in developing a moral and social vision and the corresponding attitudes, behaviors, and skills.

Therefore, having been in higher education for just over five years, I don’t have a publishing track record, because this has not really been one of my goals, nor aspirations, up to this point.  I am a minister, administrator, and educator who is seeking to cultivate environments and experiences for students development as socially responsible leaders and learners.  The time for writing or my own research may come at some point in the future—but in the meantime, there is enough work to do to keep me well occupied!