By Steve Vivona
VITAL (the Vincentian Initiative to Advance Leadership) is "a leadership program based on service, spirituality and values" initiated by Director of Campus Ministry Pamela Shea-Byrnes in 1999. In a recent interview with St. John's Monthly discussing VITAL's origins she noted that the Catholic Bishops of America encouraged campus ministers to empower effective Catholic leaders for the future.
Ms. Shea-Byrnes said that with VITAL her goal was to bring together the best of the leadership training models and give students the opportunity to experience challenging programs around diversity and having their values inform their choices in a safe environment.
"To give them the chance to experience these leadership training opportunities and structured experiences in the context of a group where there is great trust and great support" is extremely important, Ms. Shea-Byrnes said, adding that the students have the added security of built-in mentors in the campus ministers who help shepherd them through these experiences.
The VITAL program has grown steadily, Campus Minister Victoria Migliore said. It is a four-year intensive program and the first graduates from that class were recently commissioned. Each year has a specific goal, and there are programs and discussions geared toward students and where they are at in their faith journey.
Each group has a VITAL night six times a year, Ms. Migliore noted. Dinner is served, and there is a theme that is explored. "The themes really help us realize our goals," which are augmented by panel discussions, mentoring meals and service days. Community service is also an important component of VITAL, and each year students get involved at a deeper level. Students go from being assigned to a service site the first year to designing their own service plan by Year Four.
Ms. Shea-Byrnes noted that another positive outgrowth of VITAL is the collaboration between the Queens and Staten Island campuses. "There's a real desire on the part of the two groups to mesh." Each year they try to have at least one joint event and possibly more. "Again we're looking at the strength of our University and bringing together the two campuses and saying we're stronger if we're together." Ms. Migliore added, "Because we integrate the campuses over four years there's natural relationships being made and a network being built."
"It's a gradual progression," Ms. Migliore stressed, with the Vincentian ideal at the center of everything they do. She added that the University is large and VITAL offers a place for students to build community. At Campus Ministry we really love that as well. They're journeying together for four years. They really find they're able to trust one another and build relationships and have those wonderful growth conversations that we want them to have."
Ms. Shea-Byrnes noted that she's investigating ways to track the progress of the VITAL students once they leave St. John's to see how well they integrated the program into their lives. "Even though we're doing this on a monthly basis what they're getting is intense. It might not feel like that at that point for them but cumulatively there's an intensity to what they're learning and hearing." She added that she hopes those lessons are seeds and as they are confronted with different situations they will draw on the seeds that were planted and nurtured by VITAL.
"We want to build leaders," Ms. Migliore said. "And that's why that mentoring of younger students aspect is so important." She observed that the process of becoming a leader or taking a leadership role is not the same for everyone. "Our students are so diverse. What we're really creating are conversations where they're starting to learn for themselves what their values are and what situations will they be placed in that might challenge those values."
Ms. Shea-Byrnes stressed, "I tell freshmen if they do nothing else VITAL will change their college experience." She added that, "One of the things we believed from the very beginning is that when you call someone a leader and you raise the bar and expect leadership behavior from them they will do it."