Eight Loyola students and two staff members traveled to Capitol Hill last month to lobby for the DREAM Act and an increase in government transparency as part of a conference about faith-inspired social justice. More than 1,100 students, educators, and religious leaders attended The Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice (IFTJ), held November 12-14 in Washington, DC.

Ann Marie Morgan, associate dean of students, and Lisa Harris, a graduate assistant, accompanied students as they attended keynote addresses and workshop sessions related to the theme of this year’s conference, “The Gritty Reality: Feel it, Think it, Engage it.” The learning goal was to inspire students to grasp the unfavorable realities of our world, think critically about those problems, and brainstorm solutions.

Allison Nicotera, a junior international studies major, says her biggest takeaway from the weekend was “to find what I am most passionate about and pursue it will my whole heart, and know that I have the support of the Jesuit community as long as I am working for social justice.”

This inspirational feeling resonated with other students who attended.

“Having a passion for social justice can sometimes feel overwhelming because there are so many important issues that are large and complex and can seem almost impossible to fix,” says Loretta Truman, a junior psychology and international studies major. At the conference she learned, “I don’t have to feel burdened by all the world’s problems. Sometimes, the biggest impacts are made from finding one issue you are passionate about and sticking with it.”

Or finding two issues, in the case of this conference. Passing the DREAM Act and closing the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly called the School of the Americas, were the focus of the weekend. WHINSEC is a military facility in Fort Benning, Georgia, that has become infamous for training graduates who have committed torture and other human rights abuses in Latin America.

Truman chose to attend the conference because she supports the DREAM Act and she believes “the manner in which the U.S. is operating WHINSEC is morally wrong and it should be closed.”

Students spent Monday, November 14, knocking on congressional office doors  and sharing their thoughts on these highly-debated topics.

Loyola’s group visited the offices of three congressmen: Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IND), Rep. Luiz Gutierrez (D-IL), and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO). The students lobbied for passage of the DREAM Act and the Latin American Military Training Review Act, which would suspend operations on the SOA/WHINSEC so torture manuals and human rights abuses linked to the school could be investigated.

“All the staffers we met with were very nice and open to discussion on the issues we brought up,” Truman says.

Nicotera says that during her stint as a lobbyist, she was “continually reminded that the government should be working for us, the people of the U.S., and be doing what we want.”

All students who attended the trip reported having a newfound appreciation for lobbying.

“The notion of contacting my representative in Congress never crossed my mind,” Truman says. “I am now aware of the difference it can make, and I am sure that I will do it again.”