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It was hot and humid the last week of August but CU sophomore Ben Fernandez was thrilled to be outside weeding at a park with other students, especially after a long period of not being together.     

Fernandez, a graphic arts major, took part in the FIRST program aimed at giving students a taste of Campus Ministry and community service at Caldwell before the semester starts. He and seven other students cleaned up Branch Brook Park in Newark, shoveled rocks for a drainage system in a community garden in Morristown and organized clothing at the Op-Shop Thrift shop in Essex Fells.  “Rather than wait for solutions to come, I want to be a part of solutions now,” said Fernandez referencing the importance of having an awareness of local and global issues. 

Colleen O’Brien, director of campus ministry, started the FIRST program five years ago. FIRST stands for Freshmen Immersion into Reflection Service and Tradition but this year sophomores were also invited since they missed out on an in-person event last year. “This is a great program that exemplifies our mission and provides an opportunity for students to engage in their faith and service before they even start the semester. They get to know a group of their peers who have similar interests and they become more familiar with the Caldwell community,” said O’Brien. 

The group was treated to a cookout with President Matthew Whelan and Mrs. Whelan, (and met their dog Lucy, the canine Cougar)  had dinner with a group of Sisters of Saint Dominic to learn about Dominican spirituality and walked to a restaurant in Caldwell giving them a chance to become familiar with the borough. There was also time for prayer and reflection in the campus chapel and ice-breaker group activities. 

Freshman Hannah Glaser enjoyed community service activities in high school so she was excited to learn about Caldwell’s volunteerism projects and to sign up for FIRST.  It was a good jump start to university life. “We got to know a few faces before classes started. We became super close.” 

O’Brien was proud of the students who “never stopped working together as a team and had great attitudes.” 

Last spring Fernandez made his First Holy Communion and Confirmation after going through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) through the University’s Campus Ministry Office.  The FIRST program provided another step for him to live out his faith. “I am excited to continue my Catholic faith journey, strengthen my understanding of what it means to be a Catholic and help people in need.”