Class of 2014: Lives of Meaning and Purpose
O’Connor leaves legacy of change at Providence College, beyond
Dave O’Connor ’14 (Franklin Square, N.Y.) didn’t wait until after he graduated from Providence College to start using what he learned in his classes.
The public and community service studies major worked with classmates and staff at the College to start Friar Food Rescue, which delivers surplus food from campus dining halls to nearby soup kitchens and churches.
O’Connor built long-lasting relationships with refugee families in South Providence through the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island and mentored students working there as well.
And he worked with other students and recent alumni to organize walking tours of the Smith Hill neighborhood during orientation to introduce incoming freshmen to the community.
“I don't think I can think of a student who has made more of his four years at Providence College than Dave O'Connor,” said Dr. Nicholas V. Longo '96, associate professor of public and community service studies.
“He has used his time at Providence College to take ‘real-world’ actions to try to make positive changes, and as a result he is the embodiment of a public and community services studies major — as someone who mobilizes others to tackle the most complex and pressing public issues facing our world,” he said.
O'Connor will receive the Alumni Association Student Service Award during Commencement Weekend at the Academic Awards Ceremony on Saturday, May 17. The honor is given to the senior who has contributed the most to PC.
Donating surplus food
O’Connor got the idea to start Friar Food Rescue as a freshman, but it wasn’t until he took Community Organizing with Dr. Richard M. Battistoni, professor of public and community service studies and of political science, that O’Connor succeeded.
“The Community Organizing class gave me the tools we needed” to get it started, O’Connor said. “We had more of an idea about capacity building, and how building a leadership team is essential.”
He also met a Brown University student who was starting a chapter of the Food Recovery Network, a group of student-led food donation groups on campuses across the country dedicated to keeping food out of landfills.
Together with Nick Canessa ’14 (Wall, N.J.), a member of Student Congress, and Stuart Gerhardt, general manager for Sodexo, PC’s food service provider, O’Connor started a Food Recovery Network chapter at PC in fall 2012 and developed a system to divert the food from the landfill.
Sodexo workers package the food in disposable aluminum trays. The students pick up the food in College vans and bring it to its destination.
“With the Friar Food Rescue, Dave put his learning about leadership, organizing, and community into practice to create something that illustrates what is possible through new ways of thinking and acting,” Longo said.
Friar Food Rescue has now expanded. More than 25 student volunteers deliver food to different sites six days a week. On Sundays, they stay and serve the food as well.
“We can’t really be effective if we’re not talking to the people we’re working with,” O’Connor said.
Another team helps restaurants become “Food Recovery Certified,” independently verifying that the businesses donate their surplus food to the hungry rather than tossing it.
O’Connor worked on the food recovery group between periods of overseas study and service. As a sophomore, he traveled to Ecuador as part of Visualizing Peace and Justice, a course that used photography to discuss peace and justice with youth in Ecuador.
During his junior year, he went to India, Senegal, and Argentina for a “Cities in the 21st Century” program offered through the School for International Training. While in Senegal, O’Connor traveled out of his way to meet relatives of refugees he worked with in Providence and took family portraits and videos to share with them when
“I had to go” see their relatives, he said. “I had the ability to go to Senegal. It would be an injustice if I didn’t.”
Thanks to a Father Philip A. Smith, O.P., Student Fellowship, O’Connor also traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, to work at the St. Martin de Porres Development Center, a Dominican organization after junior year. Finally, in January, he traveled to Nicaragua as part of the Community Literacy course and worked with Waves of Hope, a non-profit organization promoting education in a rural community.
Learning through reflection
O’Connor grew up in Franklin Square, N.Y., but spent summers as a teenager in rural Prince Edward Island, Canada, so he was exposed to two different communities. “At Providence College, I was allowed to reflect on that and see those differences,” he said.
Reflecting “is an undervalued skill or discipline,” O’Connor said. “You make yourself aware of why you’re doing the things you’re doing, why things are the way they are. People didn’t become poor overnight.”
O’Connor has spiritual motivation for his service work as well. At PC, he attended weekly Mass, following the example of his late father, who died of lung cancer when O’Connor was 15.
“My faith has taught me that we’re all part of this larger community. We have rights, but we also have duties,” he said. “It’s not one person serving the other — it’s a mutual relationship.”
That was part of the reason why O’Connor collaborated with students such as Kerry Fleming ’14 (Newton, Mass.) and recent alumni working for the Feinstein Institute for Public Service to organize tours during Freshman Orientation.
“I wanted to get students to realize their home is not just in the confines of the campus gates, but also Smith Hill and greater Providence,” he said. “We’re trying to get students to really engage in the community and use not only the resources we have here but also the resources Providence has to offer.”
— Liz F. Kay