It is midnight on the third floor of Darnall, and a small group of freshmen are chatting as they watch TV and plug away at their homework. As a Catholic priest strolls in with a plate of freshly baked treats, a student yells down the hall,”Fr. McManus has cookies!” and more residents quickly spill into the common room.
At work is campus ministry’s residential ministry, directed by Michelle Siemietkowski (COL ’92). The program boasts 26 chaplains-in-residence and Jesuits-in-residence who live among students in university-owned housing.
The purpose of the program stems from the university’s commitment to providing chaplaincy service for students 24 hours a day, Siemietkowski said. But the program is much more than attractive language for an admissions brochure.
“CIRs and JIRs also reach out to students who may have particular needs or particular considerations, which is a really special service that we provide,” Siemietkowski said. “A chaplain can show up on a student’s floor with cookies and ask ‘Hey, how are mid-terms going?’ and really connect with students. They do a lot of outreach.”
For husband and wife chaplain team Zeyneb and Salih Sayilgan, who reside on the second floor of New South, the opportunity for outreach inspired them to serve as on-campus mentors.
“I think the chaplaincy program is creating a sense of community in this diverse university. It gives us a chance to engage with students, learn from them and serve them,” Salih Sayilgan said.
“We believe that loving God means to serve his creatures, and this is one way to do that,” Zeyneb added. “This is one way for us to serve students, to be a resource. We are students ourselves, so we can relate to them and their concerns.”
With a New South apartment overlooking the Potomac, the two balance their roles as chaplains with their pursuit of doctoral degrees. Zeyneb, originally from Germany, is studying theology at Georgetown, while Salih, originally from Turkey, commutes to the Catholic University of America. The Muslim couple, who met at a religious conference, foster their own religion and relationship through their work as chaplains.
“We don’t like scholars who get caught up in the ivory tower and don’t share their knowledge with people. We want to live within the community, see what the problems are, and share our knowledge,” Zeyneb said. “For us, the academic life and our occupation as chaplains create a great balance.”
Reverend Elaine Hall, a Protestant Methodist chaplain living on New South’s first floor, sees her ministry of guidance and baked goods not only as a way to satisfy a hunger for the physical and spiritual, but also as a way of connecting with residents. She recalled a situation where a student who initially made contact during an open house eventually opened up to her about a serious, personal situation.
“I realized this job was the perfect place for me in this moment. A student who really needed to talk to someone chose me to connect with, because of something I had done,” Hall said. “All of those cookies meant more than just all those calories.”
For Siemietkowski, this dedication to religion and willingness to serve others makes the chaplains a strong resource on campus.
“I look for significant pastoral education, training and experience. I look for commitment to one’s faith tradition and an openness to all faith traditions. The chaplains need good skills with undergraduate students and the ability to remain calm in times of crisis.”
Siemietkowski also focuses on fostering diversity among her chaplaincy staff.
“Our CIRs and JIRs not only represent a variety of faith traditions but also represent a variety of professions,” she said. “Some are professors here at Georgetown. Some are full-time high school teachers. Some are finishing their doctoral programs while teaching at the graduate level. Some are pastors in churches, and some are chaplains in hospitals.”
For Siemietkowski, these connections reinforce Georgetown’s focus on interreligious understanding. She emphasized that CIRs and JIRs are chaplains to all of the students, no matter their faith tradition — even if they have no faith tradition at all.
This range of diverse backgrounds and faiths serves to break down barriers between students and their chaplains. Siemietkowski credits the casual and relaxed atmosphere that the chaplains and Jesuits provide with students’ increasing acceptance of the Hilltop as a new home.
“What makes me really happy is when students knock on our door in a very desperate way, often when they can’t talk to anyone else, and we welcome them and we talk to them and when they leave with a smile on their face, that is a great pleasure to us,” Salih said.
Hall echoed this same sentiment.
“I think having folks on campus who are intentionally trying to facilitate these connections is really important,” she said.
Hall’s New South abode is also home to her husband and 3-year-old son Martin, who has lived on campus since birth. The students on the floor appreciate having a young family as their neighbor, she said — and for Martin, the feeling is mutual.
“Martin loves being around students, which has been a great deal for us,” she said.
As the program continues to grow, Siemietkowski hopes for continued collaboration among faith traditions, while ensuring a commitment to greater Jesuit ideals. She hopes to continue programs such as this year’s “Relationship Series,” held by the Office of Campus Ministry and featuring the input of several chaplains, in order to cultivate these ideas.
Siemietkowski added that the chaplain-in-residence on-call system helps maintain sufficient spiritual support for students; chaplains and Jesuits-in-residence are available at a specific phone number throughout the day for emergency guidance.
“Committed to the Jesuit ideal of cura personalis, Georgetown is very proud to say chaplains are available for students 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” she said.
According to Zeyneb Sayilgan, the program is an integral part of Georgetown’s identity.
“I love the concept of chaplains in residence. I wish every university would have them, because if you really want to have good students, the education must be more than the intellectual,” she said. “You need to address the human being on so many various levels. I think the [chaplain-in-residence] program is trying to really do that, to address the whole entity of what it means to be an individual.”