When Northwest Catholic alumna Emma Deneen of Windsor left for North Carolina’s Elon University five years ago, she wasn’t certain what major she’d pursue. She was sure, however, that she would find a way to serve the world, one way or another.
At first Emma considered international relations and political science. After spending her formative high school years at Northwest Catholic in West Hartford, learning to look outward rather than in, Emma figured coursework about global economics and ethics was a good start. But after her first year at Elon, Emma found herself drawn to psychology and neuroscience and could already see their connections to community development.
After talking with Emma Deneen in her office at Grace Academy in Hartford, it became increasingly clear that she’s an interdisciplinary junkie. Emma finds a way to pull all her interests together. With a Bachelors in Psychology and as a lifelong student of community development with all its intersecting influences, such as poverty, trauma, and resilience, Emma is now positioned for a successful career on the global scene.
But this past year, rather than travel the world or dive into graduate school, Emma decided to stay close to home and make a difference right here in Hartford. For the past year, Emma has worked as an Americorp Volunteer serving as assistant teacher and administrative support at Grace Academy, a school for girls in grades 5 through 8.
Grace Academy is a tuition-free, college preparatory program. True to the NativityMiguel model, the school’s committed staff provide a holistic education and guide the girls toward high-performing public and private high schools and even follow them on to college. Serving low-income, highly motivated girls in small classes with extended schedules, Grace is making a difference in their families’ lives, and Emma is part of that difference.
On June 28 Emma will complete her stint at Grace, and with her end-date looming, she’s working feverishly to put the pieces in place for the Grace applicants she’s been guiding throughout the year. Emma spoke about the relationships she’s built with the families and how she’s reluctant to leave them while they’re still mid-process. So, Emma’s preparing: she’s organizing files for her replacement and doing her part to tie up loose ends.
On her last day at Grace, Emma will fly to Denver to begin her next chapter. She will join the Public Interest Network, the parent organization for groups such as Green Corp, Pesticide Watch, and Community Voters Project. PIN has a “vision of a better world,” which will be a good fit for Emma Deneen. And after a year at the Public Interest Network, Emma already has a plan. She’s been accepted into the University of Denver’s Masters of Social Work program. Denver’s MSW has a special focus on community development and sustainability, another perfect fit for Emma.
When asked about her experiences at Grace Academy, Emma immediately pointed to the school’s many gifts. She spoke of how Grace’s staff share a common goal and “all work together toward something bigger,” of how her colleagues follow the families “all the way through.” She described the importance of relationships at Grace and how the staff really care, how they are removing barriers everyday.
When Emma reflected on her experiences at Northwest Catholic, she immediately drew lines back to Mrs. Gillespie and Campus Ministry. She talked about her afternoons at the Catholic Worker House and Monday nights at Manna Meals. In retrospect, she can see how the foundation was laid with Northwest Catholic’s focus on compassion, reflection, and prayer. Emma also appreciates how Northwest rewards service. She said, “People really care that you’re serving others.” She reminisced about a meal-packing project that she started with her classmate Victoria Gleixner, a project that has become an annual tradition at the school. When Emma won the service award as a senior, she remembers feeling elated. She said the recognition meant so much to her.
Emma went on, “The message is always there at Northwest — that the way you act affects others.” She added, “We learned about investing in society. We were always being reminded of what our place in the world could be.”