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“These are young people who are falling between the cracks,” Sundborg said. “We want to create a pipeline so that they can go to college, hopefully Seattle University, and get good jobs. The crisis is acute in our own backyard, and with community-building collaboration, we can make a difference. Our dedication to helping and working side by side with underserved populations and those in need is proven and unwavering.” This year, the Youth Initiative received the 2012 Presidential Award for community service — the highest recognition by the federal government to a college or university for civic engagement, service learning and volunteerism.
The university has also tackled family homelessness under Sundborg, with a coalition of 14 faith communities across the region that have committed to changing attitudes, behaviors and policies around family homelessness. Selected communities receive financial resources and support designed to increase their response to family homelessness, while learning to effectively advocate for the public policy changes needed to reduce family homelessness in the region.
One of Sundborg’s newer initiatives is engaging Seattle University students to work in poor, developing countries with nongovernmental organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Jesuit Refugee Service, Peace Trees Vietnam and the Jesuit Chikuni Mission in Zambia. “I believe Father Sundborg sees this global outreach as an updating of the Jesuits’ historical outreach to the world,” said associate provost for global engagement Victoria Jones. “This is an opportunity for our students not only to broaden their awareness of the world, but to partner with local communities to address the needs of under-resourced areas.”
These partnerships are also reciprocated, Jones said. For example, the University of Central America in Managua, Nicaragua asked Seattle University to provide their students an opportunity to do an immersion practicum with local businesses to learn about sustainable growth. “Our students work in a geographical area, or convergence site, where we have a set of local partners,” Jones said. “Students are not only learning international competencies, but also capacity building for partnering [with] businesses on the ground. We are working strategically with the Jesuit network worldwide.”
Notwithstanding its academic strengths, however, Seattle University’s institutional visibility remains low in the Puget Sound region — frequently overshadowed by the University of Washington. “We’re under-recognized for the impact we have in this state,” Sundborg said. “There are 40,000 alumni in Washington state, 35,000 of whom live here in the Puget Sound. Seattle University is making a great difference in the Pacific Northwest region.”
Like other religious leaders, Sundborg’s presidency has not been immune to controversy. From 2006 to 2009, the Seattle University president was embroiled in a much-publicized and stormy legal battle involving Jesuit priests accused of having sexually abused minors, including Native Alaskan children while Sundborg was acting provincial of the Oregon Province. He was named a defendant in the civil suit in the latter case, which was settled two years ago.
He has also had to grapple with the increasingly strident public opposition to the Catholic Church's stance on same-sex marriage, contraception and clergy abuse, drawing fire from R-74 supporters last spring when he defended the amendment to R-74 that exempts religiously affiliated schools from having to accommodate same-sex weddings. “[It] protects us from having to make our chapels available for same-sex marriages. To require us to utilize them for this purpose would violate our identity and commitment as a Catholic University,” he said.
In spite of the harsh criticism he endured, Sundborg emerged from those crises with his reputation untarnished, a testament to his resilience and fortitude.
Sundborg is upbeat too about SU’s ability to leverage jobs for its graduates and contribute to the region’s economy during a time of recession. Increasing SU's emphasis on STEM disciplines, he says, will help graduates compete in an increasingly competitive workforce. “We’ve weathered the economic downturn well," Sundborg said. "A lot of people want to come to Seattle, and we’re situated right in the middle of the city."
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