For 51 years, the University of Dayton has celebrated Christmas on Campus. Each year, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, students from Dayton city schools are “buddied up” with a UD student and brought to campus, where they participate in games and activities for the evening.
The COC committee works year-round to prepare this event, during which 1,300 students are bussed to campus. They partner with many other student groups that organize events on campus for the children to attend.
Co-directors of COC, Lauren McNamara, a senior accounting major and Alec Wade, a senior education major, participated in the event their first year on campus and have been on the COC committee for the past three years.
“It’s a night when we know everything’s not going to be perfect,” McNamara said, “but the atmosphere is perfect.”
WHAT STUDENTS SAY
Students, faculty and alumni treasure this “wonderful tradition,” sophomore English major Grace Hagan said, that extends UD’s community to the greater Dayton area for a night.
“It’s a fun-filled day, but before we know it it’s over,” Hagan said. “It’s complicated, though, because I understand that we don’t want to build the kids’ hopes up with the promising of an extended/ongoing relationship.”
Sophomore education major Danielle Tout, who went to the UDSAP House in Salyersville, Kentucky, for a fall service-learning break-out said, “Christmas on Campus is the best example of a service-learning project in the Dayton community.”
Student Government Association Director of Campus Unity Ian Edgley, a junior political science major, said he and his committee work to “promote the Marianist values of inclusivity and community on campus.”
Although Edgley said the event comes from “good intentions,” it can’t be a one day event.
“A more time-intensive program needs to be implemented. I don’t think it would get a lot of support,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t think students would want to venture outside the UD bubble.”
When viewed through the lens of a service-learning project, the question that presents itself is this: How valuable is it for UD students to give children from the Dayton area one night of holiday cheer? In recent years, some community members have called into question the common perception of COC as a service-learning project.
Flyer News conducted a poll via social media to gauge how students felt about this, with 78 percent of 195 students voting that both the UD students and the Dayton children benefit equally from it.
Three percent voted the students benefit significantly more from it, 12 percent voted the children benefit significantly more from it, two percent voted neither the students nor the children benefit from it and five percent do not care or use the day for other purposes.
English professor Tom Morgan said that while the event may be very well intended, he’s not sure it accomplishes the social justice work that some participants may think.
“It’s one day on campus,” Morgan said. “It makes me wonder about the other 364 days in the lives of both sets of people here. Do the other days actually balance the one?”
He said he questions the overall effectiveness of the event in the context of society as a whole – but, more specifically, within the context of Marianist values that the university maintains.
“A lot of time, money and effort goes into it – but are the long-term benefits of that day justified by the efforts and expense put into it?” he said. “Not to be cynical…but it allows students to feel very good about themselves for the rest of the year. But what does it do to change the material conditions or the experiences of the child besides that one day? If it’s not built to address actual change, then it seems to be…touristic, rather than community-based change.”
Philosophy professor Danielle Poe said that she stresses in class that the student who is doing the service is learning more from the experience than from what they’re giving.
“My primary concern is that too often we go into these thinking ‘oh, I’m doing this great, charitable thing’ and don’t realize that it really is a reciprocal relationship,” she said.
Poe said that this mentality is most often applied to service that involves working with children.
“Notions of the church’s role in uplifting the community sometimes gets enacted paternalistically rather than in an equitable manner,” Morgan said. “Being socially empowered or possessing the economic privilege to want to help means you’re oftentimes financially better off than the people you’re helping. How do you break the class distinctions?”
“Just in general as a society, we have sort of a condescending view of kids– that they don’t have much to teach us, but that they need to learn from us. My favorite moment is, in classes, when there are these ‘a ha’ moments, and somebody realizes ‘that kid has experiences and a perspective that I never would have discovered if I hadn’t been here working with that student.’ So, having that sense of reciprocity I think is the ideal service experience.”
For students who use Christmas on Campus as their service-learning, Poe said in her experience she has not had good luck.
“I find it difficult because there’s not a context for the pairing between UD students and the students who come from all over Dayton on campus,” Poe said.
Often these questions are directed at the event itself. But in their own words, Christmas on Campus does not profess to be a service-learning group.
“Christmas on Campus isn’t a service group. It’s a special interest group,” McNamara said.
Wade said service is not the organization’s “mission,” but that they do a service: they try to create an atmosphere for a night that exposes the children to a college setting and brings the children and the community together.
“So, is it really a just thing?” Wade said. “Absolutely it is.”
To dispel misconceptions about long-term relationships between UD students and the children, the committee has changed the term “adoption” to “buddying up” under the “School Outreach” subcommittee.
With 24 committee members, “70-something” partnering organizations and 1,300 children from the Dayton area to account for, McNamara and Wade said a lot is “beyond [their] control.”
In response to the suggestion for longer relationships between students and children, McNamara said with an event of this scale, “you can’t do it more than once a year.”
It’s hard because we don’t think people know how much time goes into planning the event,” McNamara said. “If organizations would like to collaborate with us, it needs to be done in the spring semester.”
McNamara and Wade were chosen in February and March for their coordinator positions. The COC committee met for the first time the first week of the semester. They’ve each invested more than 400 hours of work into this two to three hour event.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
“There have been a lot of criticisms about how socially just [COC] is. That’s one thing that we do know: we’re not a perfect community. We do listen to everyone’s opinions,” Wade said. “I think the one thing people need to realize is that when they do criticize us, they do need to give us suggestions.”
Community members agree that frank discussion will help clarify the perception of Christmas on Campus and further enhance the tradition’s impact on the Dayton community.
While the event’s mission is not to provide a service-learning opportunity, the committee is open to suggestions on how to make it a more engaging educational opportunity for the children and adults who participate, and those who question the event agree that that should happen.
“I don’t think people like me who want to have more critical discussion around it have any intention of saying, ‘Oh, Christmas on Campus is bad. We shouldn’t have it any more.’ But just to think how we could link the learning of service-learning part better to this signature event on campus,” Poe said.