Life Changers

Karen and Tom Mulvaney.


John Egan ’08 has spent many a night on a half-inflated mattress on the floor where his cab driver lives. He sleeps in a tangle of blankets, only half hearing the sounds of dogs scuffling in the street and roosters crowing in the yard. But in that gauzy space between sleep and wake, the tantalizing smell of a special fried dough, called “bammy,” tells him — even though he’s more than 3,000 miles from his house — that he’s home.

That’s the way Jamaica makes you feel — like you’re at home. The cab driver you accidentally hitch a ride from at the airport becomes a lifelong friend and, seven years later, still lets you bunk at his house whenever you show up. The people you get to know treat you like family no matter how long you’ve been away. The doors on the houses aren’t just open to catch the morning breezes, but beckon you to come in, stay awhile and share whatever meal is on the table.

Egan graduated from USD in 2008 with a major in sociology and a minor in English. He grew up in Lafayette, Calif., a quiet suburb in the Bay Area. Aside from trips to visit family — and a fishing trip to Canada — he hadn’t traveled much when he first arrived to campus. His sophomore year, a cancelled study abroad excursion to Ireland circuitously led him to Jamaica, and he’s been back more than a dozen times since. While the original plan was to help those in need change their lives, Egan realizes his experiences in Jamaica have changed his.

“The lessons I’ve learned are about people and community and relationships,” says Egan, who, after his initial trips to Jamaica, became known as USD’s “cultural attaché” there, organizing projects such as painting murals, volunteering at an all-age school and coordinating essay-writing contests with $100 prizes that covered the entrance fees some Jamaican students pay to move on to high school. “I’ll never fully be able to put into words all that Jamaica has taught me. I just know I’m a better person for it.”

Egan is one of thousands of students who’ve participated over the years in the programs offered by USD’s Center for Community Service-Learning. Founded in 1986 as a nexus for student volunteers, it grew into a service-learning program that allows students, faculty and administrators to expand what they’ve learned in the classroom with lessons that spring from connecting with the world.

The center is acclaimed as one of the top service-learning programs in the nation for integrating community service with academic study, enriching learning, teaching civic responsibility and strengthening communities.

But its biggest accomplishment came in October 2014. With a gift of nearly $3 million, Karen and Tom ’77 (JD) Mulvaney endowed the center. To honor the gift, it’s now known as Karen and Tom Mulvaney Center for Community, Awareness and Social Action.

“Karen and Tom are family,” says Chris Nayve ’98, ’06 (JD), ’07 (MBA), who joined the center in 1996 and is now USD’s assistant provost for community engagement. “I have to recognize Judy Rauner, Elaine Elliott, Barbara Peterson, Brenna Hughes and all the people who came before us, because this gift validates their vision and the work they did to get us where we are today. The Mulvaney name means so much to us, because of who Karen and Tom are, and we’re excited to grow into it.”

Well before Tom Mulvaney graduated from USD’s School of Law in 1977, his father, Jim Mulvaney, was a professor at the law school, where he taught from 1957 to 1963. A respected civic leader, Jim donated his time and energies to countless local organizations, and worked with the United Way for more than half a century. In 1991, Gov. Pete Wilson named him “Mr. San Diego.”

According to Karen and Tom, “The values and lessons we learn from family, flow outward in ways both known and unknown. It has been our unspoken intent to live up to our parents’ lessons, showed by example in small and big ways and what they valued — they believed and acted upon a simple creed: ‘Lighten others’ loads, treat everyone with respect and in an equal manner, leave the world at least as good as you found it, and when you can, leave it better.’ ”

The Mulvaneys are proud to see that dedication to service living on in their own children and in the hearts of USD students.

“To have made it possible for students to stretch beyond themselves, understand themselves and others with greater compassion and empathy — in essence to blur the lines that separate each of us from each other, to make lasting relationships and impact — well, we often ask ourselves, ‘Why else are we here?’”

Chase Tushaus ’10 has seen all kinds of blurred lines during his many journeys to New Orleans. He thought his first trip, in 2009, would be like other Spring Break trips, where he’d help rebuild a house, then head home and rarely, if ever, look back.

But it wasn’t.

He kept coming back. Just like the university keeps coming back, returning to New Orleans each year.

“God led us through these trips and introduced us to people we needed to meet,” Tushaus says. “It’s amazing to get to know people who had gone through this great tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and its lingering aftermath — and see that, despite everything, they still have a sense of hope and community.”

For John Loggins ’95, ’12 (MA), USD’s director for community student leadership and learning, the work of the Mulvaney Center isn’t about how many houses students have built, how many meals they’ve served or how many students they’ve tutored. It’s about the bonds they’ve formed along the way.

Those bonds are powerful. They’re in evidence when members of the local Sudanese community show up at USD’s commencement ceremonies to cheer for students who’ve been instrumental in their programs. They’re front and center at places like Linda Vista’s Bayside Community Center and at the San Diego Cooperative Charter School, where so many USD graduates have been hired, following their time as student volunteers.

Kate Dickinson ’02, ’06 (MA), who was active with community service-learning as a student, was a classroom teacher and is now an inclusion and differentiation specialist at the Co-Op School. The relationship her school has with the university is one of reciprocity.

“The work I do at USD and the work USD does with us is about collaboration,” says Dickinson. “They’ll do a service project for us — like last summer, when a team of residence assistants from the residence halls came to help our teachers set up their classrooms — but then we’ll help professors with their gender studies and ethnographic research, or people like Dayanne Izmirian in residential life, with her work regarding restorative justice services.”

Loggins, who served in the Peace Corps in Jamaica from 1996 to 1998 and was instrumental in launching USD’s efforts there, says there’s more to service than charting good deeds.

“We don’t want service to be about the numbers,” he says. “It’s not about padding resumes or doing something because it looks good on grad school applications. Service is the tool, not the purpose.”

At USD, students who truly have a heart for service are known as Changemakers. Eirene Rocha ’13 fits that description to a ‘T.’ Rocha, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a minor in ethnic studies, was part of an immersion trip to New Orleans in 2012.

The following year, after graduating from USD, she returned to take a job next door at the Duchesne House, established by
the Religious of the Sacred Heart as a place for high school and college students to stay while they engaged in immersion
and service projects.

Even though Rocha’s back in San Diego, the Community Book Center in New Orleans is her home away from home. It’s filled with people talking about local politics, education and the gentrification of neighborhoods.

At the center of the hustle and bustle is Mama J, with her short, salt-and-pepper hair and larger-than-life personality. Then there’s her husband, Baba D, a tall, quiet man, who thinks of Rocha as a daughter.

Rocha is drawn to New Orleans. Someday she’ll return to those she left behind.

“New Orleans has a way of grabbing you and pulling you in,” she says. “Before I went to New Orleans, I only had a basic understanding of the world. Now I understand the kind of work that’s being done at the grassroots level and what it means to truly be part of a community.”

Tushaus agrees. Lessons about community are at the core of what he learned there.

“I will forever know people who suffered more than I can ever comprehend. And, despite it all, they have so much love and hope to give,” he says. “My life will always have a focus on service — whether I’m taking care of a family, building a home or working in a cubicle. I’ll always feel called to bring positive change to the world.”

Making the world a better place was at the heart of the Mulvaneys’ decision to assure USD’s work would continue for generations.

“There will be a legacy that goes beyond our children, our family and friend attachments,” they say. “It will be alive through the work we have done and what we have valued, which will continue to be seen and felt at local levels and beyond those boundaries and borders. Thoughts about a future we can only imagine and will not see … make us feel humbled and grateful.” — Krystn Shrieve