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Loyola student encourages "Next Step" for special needs and disadvantaged youth

During Loyola University Maryland's 2020 Commencement, the Natural and Applied Sciences academic division awarded for the first time the Choudhury Sarkar-Dey medal to an outstanding graduating senior who has shown remarkable commitment to diversity and community service during their time at Loyola.  We are proud to share with you the reflections submitted by the finalists, nominated by their faculty and departments, in this series of posts. 

Reflection from Loyola biology major Sarah Kujala, '20 on fostering community and advocating for others

By Sarah Kujala, '20, Biology major, 2020 Choudhury Sarkar-Dey Medalist

Sarah Kujala, '20I stepped onto Loyola’s campus as a quiet, reserved student. I never imagined that I, Sarah Kujala, '20, would start a club or accomplish what I have in these past four years. During my time at Loyola, I learned a great deal about myself and how I fit into the bigger picture of the Loyola community, as well as the surrounding Baltimore area. As a first year, I tried to participate in many clubs and service initiatives, but there were few that resonated with me. I was very interested in helping those with special needs because my brother is on the autism spectrum. I spent the majority of my first year fully immersed in my academics adjusting to the transition of college. During my second semester I attended an event called “One Question” hosted by a class on campus exploring opportunities of the disadvantaged. They displayed a video with the one question “What would you change about yourself?” and had a panel of special needs adults from The Arc Baltimore. Almost all of the adults at the Arc answered the question with, “to be a better person.” It was the most genuine answer someone could give; they were living out Magis without even trying. The participants on the panel then told us about their lives and what they loved to do, and in that moment, I saw a need. The Arc allowed them to do things they would most likely never have the chance to do. That night I learned so much about how people feel about what they can do in the special needs community.

I thought about my brother and the experiences he would not have because of his disability. My brother previously attended Kennedy Krieger High School (KKHS), a special needs high school. I wondered why Loyola did not have any connections with them, considering Ridley Athletic Complex shares a parking lot with the school. Loyola’s mission emphasizes service and community, which fostered a sense of community in me. I wanted to do more, I wanted to make these students a part of our community too.

This inspired me to grow a connection with KKHS, and after many months of gathering contact information and emails to both KKHS and Loyola, I was finally able to meet with administrators from KKHS. I met with Ms. Miller the KKHS educational director and a group of teachers multiple times to discuss plans for what a potential Loyola club would look like. My vision for this club was aimed at building these connections between the students at both schools. Many of these students do not have the opportunity to attend college or pursue a collegiate degree. This is due to financial difficulty, family struggles, and a lack of support in the college academic setting. Some KKHS students also receive a certificate of completion instead of a high school diploma, disqualifying them from the normal college application process. Ms. Miller and I decided to name the club Next Step because it would allow them to have college like experiences, like the next step in their lives. We as Loyola students have the privilege of receiving a higher education and experiencing all the fun things that college has to offer such as sporting events and the ability to meet and make friends. I knew I had the power to provide KKHS students with fun experiences and social opportunities through this partnership with Loyola. Through hard work in establishing this partnership, I learned how to communicate with community partners, organize meetings, and learned the value of persistence. This exact persistence has aided me in my studies, research, and job searches. It also takes persistence to continuously ingrain volunteerism in my life. Moreover, because I wanted to be involved with the Baltimore community, I learned to balance service and extracurriculars with a heavy academic load.

I ran the majority of this club alone because I struggled with recruiting help. However, I started to organize inclusive events for the KKHS students by contacting campus departments to create affordable events. After some more emails I connected to a couple Loyola departments such as athletics and student activities on campus. They were excited to help me bring my event plans to life. Families from KKHS were invited to sporting events to sit with Loyola students. As I looked around the bleachers during a basketball game, every KKHS student in attendance spent the whole game smiling and cheering on the Greyhounds. One of them even got selected for “fan of the game.” We also connected Loyola ROTC with their Young Marines program and had them present the Colors at soccer and basketball games. Those students got to participate and experience a school that they could see from their classroom window. After being surrounded by the Loyola community, one student asked his parents if it was possible for him to attend school here. The inspiration and passion for the Loyola community ignited his application process, and he now sits in the Hound Town bleachers—as a student. I could not have imagined the type of impact this club would have, and even though this is only one student, I know that fostering a sense of community provided him with the knowledge that he could do something as big as attending Loyola. I started this club because I wanted to give to the community that was so close. KKHS is full of students who show passion in everything they do, and they deserve to share that with those around them. This year we were just starting to set up other events. For example, KKHS students would be able to take a tour of the athletic complex and meet the Loyola athletes. We also wanted to connect their science classes to take a field trip to see a real Loyola laboratory. By providing these events and experiences, I wanted these students to really understand that they could be a part of the diverse Loyola community.

I found myself trying to foster community in other service I took part in during my time at Loyola. Outside of this club I participated in Alpha Sigma Nu the Jesuit Honors Society, Tri-Beta, the biology honors society which is very dedicated to service, and I worked as a volunteer at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. As a student, I found myself immersed in the surrounding Baltimore community in so many different ways. I began to understand how many people the “community” included, whether it was the students on campus, those living right next door, or those in the hospital fifteen minutes down the street from our beautiful campus. I was living the Magis and Loyola’s mission and every day I volunteered or created an event. The persistence, communication skills, time management, and all the small things in-between are what allowed me to grow as a person intellectually and physically during my time at Loyola. Loyola’s mission became a part of who I am in every aspect. Every moment from these experiences will be with me as a persist on into my career in the medical field. I know I can help those who are disadvantaged and not just those who are disabled, because I have these values ingrained.