The Burke Scholars Program at Marquette University:
A Xavier Alumna’s Journey
My name is Lauren Varkoly, and I graduated from Xavier in 2017. I am currently a senior at Marquette University studying Biomedical Sciences as a Burke Scholar. The Burke Scholars Program is a four-year, full-tuition, social justice scholarship that requires 150 hours of community service each semester, which is about 12 hours each week. Every year ten graduating high school seniors are awarded this honor.
I was heavily involved in community service as a Xavier student and enjoyed helping others. But the service experiences I have had at Marquette through the Burke program have provided me with an education that has enhanced the classroom learning I have received in ways I never could have imagined.
The Burke Scholarship involves more than just community service. It is about human connection. I have been fortunate to have served at many different service sites across the Milwaukee community. At each service site, I have developed relationships with and been moved by the people that I am serving with and for. I have been both inspired and heartbroken at my sites. As Marquette's Jesuit tradition teaches, I have served for and with others, often receiving more from my service than I feel that I am giving.
I have worked at a homeless shelter helping residents find employment. I helped them write resumes, practice interview questions, and provided encouragement on interview days. I felt the disappointment of those who did not get hired for a job, and vowed that as long as they never stopped trying, I would never stop working with community partners and setting them up with interviews. I celebrated with them when they were hired for a job, found steady income and were able to break their cycle of homelessness and find secure housing.
One family I worked with at the homeless shelter opened my eyes to God’s love: Teresa had fallen ill after the birth of her son, and her husband Antonio lost his job after he missed too many days of work caring for his wife, newborn son and young daughter. I spent many nights with their son tucked in my arms and their daughter bouncing on my lap as I looked over Antonio’s shoulder and offered advice on his resume and asked him mock interview questions. I would then check in on Teresa and bring her a leftover packet of pretzels or popcorn from snack time so that when she woke in the middle of the night with nausea from her medication, she would have something to settle her stomach. Every time I worked with this family, I was in awe of their positive attitudes and how much joy they exuded. I didn’t understand how they could be so joyful while they were struggling so much. In a conversation with Teresa, she told me that she was grateful to God for her husband and the gift of her two children and that every day was a blessing.
I volunteered at a daycare, working in their special care nursery where I was partnered with toddlers who had higher medical needs. I worked with the occupational and physical therapists, nurses, and teachers to provide the children with the care they needed while supporting their social development. I saw the joy and innocence of special needs children, not limited or bothered by their disabilities, and I saw the other students who did not see disabled students, they only saw their friends. Through the eyes and the innocence of these children, I saw that we are all created equally in God’s eyes.
I volunteered at a healing center for victims of domestic and sexual assault. I acted as a companion, advocating for them as they had medical examinations and reported their case to the police. One day, when I walked into the clinic, I was quickly ushered into a room with an eleven-year-old girl with Down Syndrome on the exam table holding a doll in her arms. Her mother was by her side, franticly yelling at the nurse in the room. I quickly gathered that the girl had been assaulted by someone close to her, and her mother wanted her to have all of the treatments completed and preventative medications given. I sat with the girl on the exam table, teaching her how to braid her doll’s hair, as the nurse discussed options with her mother. I sat behind the confused child with her head on my chest, trying to comfort and distract her as the nurse tried to perform an examination. I felt sick as she was leaving the clinic, not understanding how anyone could hurt her. As I waved goodbye with a smile that didn’t quite reach my eyes, the nurse turned to me and said, “I think it’s God’s blessing that she doesn’t realize what happened to her.”
I led a group of Marquette students volunteering at an after school program for Milwaukee Public School students. We helped to serve food to students, realizing that many of these students rely on the meals that they receive at school as their only meal of the day. After their bellies were full and they were able to focus, we helped them complete their homework and work on their math and reading comprehension. Many of the middle school children were many grade levels behind in their reading comprehension and math skills, but I was motivated by their determination to learn.
For the last two years, I have worked part-time on second shift in one of Milwaukee's inner city hospitals as a CNA. Here, education and service go hand and hand. In no other site have I been able to reach such a wide demographic of people. At the hospital, I have been given the opportunity to practice all seven of the corporal works of mercy, from caring for the sick and dying, feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, and even caring for the imprisoned, as our hospital is used to provide care to those in the Milwaukee County Jail and other surrounding prisons.
Before COVID, I worked on a surgical floor, but as elective surgeries were cancelled, I transitioned to the COVID unit. While many who have been hospitalized with COVID have been able to recover, there have also been many who have not.
At eleven o’clock at night on the Friday after Thanksgiving, I knelt at the side of a hospital bed and held the hand of a woman with pneumonia from a COVID-19 infection. She was having a bad day. All afternoon, we had been working on trying to increase her oxygen levels that were getting dangerously low. Her pulse was racing, her respirations were strained, and she was incredibly weak. Through tears, she told me that she was worried about her son and her daughter and wished that she could see them. She told me that she tried to pray her nightly Rosary, but was too exhausted and pained to finish the prayer. I asked her if she would like me to pray with her and with hopeful eyes, she nodded. After praying with her, I promised that when I got home after my shift I would pray the Rosary for her and her family because she couldn’t. For the first time all day, her oxygen saturation was above 90%. At the door to her room the resident caring for her pulled me aside and asked what I did. I told him it wasn’t my doing, but that it was God’s peace. She passed away that Sunday.
One of the hardest parts about working on the COVID unit throughout this pandemic is that we are no longer just medical caregivers. Patients are allowed no visitors, and are scared and lonely. We have become fill-in family members for patients, holding their hands and trying to bring them any comfort that we possibly can. As patient’s call out for their family members as they are taking their last breaths, we are there holding their hand and saying, “I’m here”. We are the ones that talk to family members and try to ease the guilt that they feel for not being there for their sick and suffering loved ones.
The Burke program has provided me with such a range of experiences and emotions; many of which are difficult to put into words. In addition to the service work we perform, the Burke Scholars meet regularly to discuss social justice issues in the Milwaukee community and in our world at large. Modeling the Jesuit education, we believe that we do not truly become Burke Scholars until we leave Marquette and live a life of service to others.
I feel incredibly blessed to have this opportunity to assist others in times of their greatest need, and I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to grow, learn and develop through the Burke Scholars program during my undergraduate years. The program was initiated by the late Dick Burke, who was the founder of Trek Bicycles, and is now managed through an endowment from The Burke Foundation. Each year ten students are selected, the majority of whom come from the Milwaukee area. I would love to see others from Xavier benefit from the opportunities this scholarship offers. If any current Xavier students are interested in obtaining a Marquette education augmented with community service and social justice, I would be happy to answer any questions you may have about the Burke program and provide guidance on preparing for the scholarship, and the application and interview process. Mr. Neiswender has my contact information.