Casa Bayanihan: A Jesuit Kind of Learning

American students with Casa Bayanihan live in an underprivileged community in Metro Manila to learn about a different culture. (Photo courtesy of Casa Bayanihan)

As Filipinos leave the country to work abroad, students from the U.S. go to the Philippines for their “study abroad” course work. Casa Bayanihan, an alternative semester abroad program based in Metro Manila, is an opportunity for students from the US, and now the Philippines, to learn about the reality of this diverse country.

Grounded in the tradition of Jesuit education that seeks to form global leaders with a “faith-filled concern for justice, ” as stated by former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., the program is sponsored by the University of San Francisco (USF) in partnership with Ateneo de Manila University.

Casa Bayanihan is one of three "Casa" programs in the Casa Educational Network; the other two are Casa de la Solidaridad in El Salvador and Casa de la Mateada in Argentina. In 2011 when Casa Bayanihan began, 10 students comprised the pioneer class. Now with its fifth “batch” in 2014, 17 students hail from a multitude of Jesuit universities in both the US and the Philippines: Boston College, Fordham University, Regis University, the University of San Francisco and Ateneo de Naga University to name a few.

While the Philippines' pristine beaches or the thrill of trekking Banaue’s rice terraces most definitely appeal to the students who participate in Casa Bayanihan, ultimately, those who choose to study abroad with the program are seeking to understand the country, culture, and its people in depth.

Spending two days a week with urban poor communities in Metro Manila, the students have the privilege of forming friendships with community members who allow the students the opportunity to walk beside them, to experience their daily realities, and to share the stories of their lives. Students have found these experiences to be incredibly moving and they take these experiences to the classroom, where they can analyze their time in the Philippines through subjects such as theology, political science, sociology and fine arts.

The program strives to nourish in its students critical minds that can engage the complexity of a world of extremes, cultivate a living faith and compassion for those on the margins, as well as foster a more profound understanding of themselves and a deeper commitment to living more justly with others.

During the semester, the students also live simply in a working-class community that is walking-distance from Ateneo de Manila University. While washing clothes by hand and taking cold showers might be an adjustment for some, in this lively neighborhood the students grow to love the residents and play with the children.

They become accustomed to the call of pan de sal in the morning and come to know the nanays and tatays by name. Casa Bayanihan is grateful for the warm welcome the neighbors give to the students and looks forward to participating in community liturgies and celebrations. By living in community, the students also learn how to support each other as they fully engage in everything that the Philippines has to offer.

Lastly, Casa Bayanihan offers students the chance to nurture their faith through weekly Spirituality Nights, optional spiritual accompaniment and a silent retreat. Though rooted in Ignatian spirituality, Casa Bayanihan is open and supportive of all faith backgrounds. Through this integrated approach, students receive an education that truly educates the whole person.

The program strives to nourish in its students critical minds that can engage the complexity of a world of extremes, cultivate a living faith and compassion for those on the margins, as well as foster a more profound understanding of themselves and a deeper commitment to living more justly with others. Many students return to the US hoping to apply what they have learned in Manila to their own communities.

Much like what the prophet Micah called for, Casa Bayanihan desires to form healthy young people who can think critically, act justly, and walk humbly and compassionately with others.

Here in their own words are reflections of some of the Casa Bayanihan alumni:

Lauryn Gregorio, Spring 2012

Lauryn Gregorio (Photo courtesy of Casa Bayanihan)

The semester I spent living and studying in the Philippines under Casa Bayanihan profoundly impacted me and was a crucial part of my university experience. The most significant aspect of my experience was the two full days each week that I spent in Kapit Bisig, a small, marginalized community in Quezon City, Manila.

While I was there, I accompanied the families of Kapit Bisig and immersed myself in the reality of their daily life. This included taking trips to the market then cooking with the women in the morning, and teaching small art classes to the children in the afternoons. I fell in love with this community and was deeply impacted by their strength, joy, and faith in the midst of so many challenges.

Seeing the world through their eyes made issues of poverty and injustice more real and personal for me. My relationships with the Filipinos I accompanied continue to inspire me as I seek to use my education as a tool to build a more humane and just world.


Colleen Ross, Fall 2012

Colleen Ross (Photo courtesy of Casa Bayanihan)

The most memorable and influential experience I encountered while studying abroad with Casa Bayanihan was learning about Filipino hospitality and generosity from a family in my praxis site. One night my friend, who was also a Casa Bayanihan student, and I were invited to spend the night at this family’s house and we accepted their invitation.

We were welcomed into their home and made to feel very comfortable. We were fed a delicious dinner and lots of meriendas (snacks), and that night the family insisted that we, their visitors, slept on the bed while they slept with blankets on the floor. The next time we went to our praxis site after our overnight stay, I brought the family a plate of cookies that I had baked to thank them for their hospitality. Instead of keeping the cookies to themselves, they shared them with almost the entire neighborhood.

Witnessing the generosity of my Filipino friends—inviting us to stay in their home and sharing the cookies—was completely different than anything I had experienced before. I learned about a different culture and a different set of values than the American values of competition and selfishness. This experience changed me by showing me that there is a better way to order your priorities in life so that people and relationships come first.


Gregory Oullette, Spring 2012

Gregory Oullette (Photo courtesy of Casa Bayanihan)

One of the most profound experiences I had in the Philippines was learning about embracing hardship. The mother of a family, which welcomed me into their home, taught me much about challenges, struggles, and enduring through those hardships. She told me, "I want to smile because I have a problem! I know God loves me because I have so many problems."

If I offered those remarks, I imagine I would say them in a sarcastic and sassy way. However, she said these things genuinely and sincerely. Conflict and struggle are inherent to life. When we deny challenges, struggles, and hardships, and when we, instead, embrace the kitsch, the fairy-tale fantasy, or the unreality, we deny human reality.

Working through hardships, persevering, receiving help, hoping, working for justice, and striving for right relationships are all beautiful things. However, life does not exclusively consist of hardship. Life is also full of joy, and working through struggles can help us remember to keep a low threshold for joy, thus making God and joy more easily accessible.

Living in the Philippines, befriending Filipinos, and learning about Filipino culture, history, politics, and language illuminated those insights for me.

My time in the Philippines has changed me. I live in the U.S. now, and majority of what I see is filtered through my recollections of my time spent in the Philippines. Additionally, I not only see my present in this new light, but I also I view my past through the lens of my time in the Philippines.

These insights remind me to be open to joy during challenging situations. While living in the Philippines, seeing and encountering God seemed to come more easily. In Tattoos on the Heart, while describing what inspired him to serve in Dolores Mission Church, in Los Angeles, California, Fr. Gregory Boyle, S.J. writes, "I knew that the poor had some privileged delivery system for giving me access to the gospel."

I can relate to Fr. Boyle's sentiments. However, my reflection would be altered slightly to read: I know that the people of the Philippines have a privileged delivery system for giving me access to the gospel. My time in the Philippines was filled with emotions and was a cathartic experience, and I remember it with great fondness. 


Alexandra Barrett, Fall 2013

Alexandra Barrett (Photo courtesy of Casa Bayanihan)

"Magadang umaga!" "Mabuhay!" "Kumusta ka?" the chorus of Filipino voices sing out to us as we walk down Mother Teresa Street. How fortunate am I to spend four months surrounded by such Filipino hospitality!

My every day was highlighted by the warmth, love, and outreach of friends, neighbors, and strangers alike. This Filipino way of being embodies many ways I believe life is intended to be lived and has presented me with the type of community I have always longed to live with. Having encountered and witnessed this uniquely Filipino love and hospitality through my semester with Casa Bayanihan has both expanded my world and perception of hope.

In our barangay, Ate Nitz is a beacon of hope. As the caregiver for stray cats, her choice to treat cats with such love demonstrates how big a heart can be. Every day on our way to class, we would find Ate Nitz sitting on the stairs in her house dress feeding a horde of cats. As we stop to chat, she shares her latest news and introduces the newest members of her clan. For her, feeding these cats is a way of affirming their worth and giving them the love that they deserve. She makes it clear that no one asked her to do this, that she does it, as she tells us, "out of the goodness of my heart."

This is a sentiment that I have discovered to be the most profound throughout my stay in the Philippines—a distinctly Filipino hope in the people, in God, the world, and even the animals around them. This way of living with love as a guide is not only present in the oldest and wisest, but among youth and the young at heart. Children often know how to make us feel welcome and comfortable, just as much as the ate (older woman) and kuya (older man) figures do.

I will never forget one of my weekend visits to Lucena, a city in Quezon province, where I met a very special scholar sponsored by a nonprofit operated by the local parish. We enjoyed talking with her about her numerous siblings and love for reading. The next day, our new friend performed the greatest gesture of hospitality I've witnessed in a young girl.

Without being asked by anyone, she created homemade welcome cards and waited for us to return to the parish before we left for the evening. As we ate dinner, she then went to buy us meryenda (snack) for our trip home. We couldn't help but be impressed by the maturity, compassion and thoughtfulness of this young girl, and we recognized how lucky we were to behold the gift of Filipino hospitality.

Whether it's Ate Nitz, a nanay (mother) in the fishing village of Calatagan, or a young scholar from a family of ten, time and time again, through the opportunities presented by Casa Bayanihan, I learned about another culture primarily through the individuals I met and got to know.

As I returned to the US, I carried with me a strong admiration for the Filipino way of being which includes a strong sense of hope and resilience, outpouring of love and hospitality, and caring for the other, as most uniquely defined by the value of bayanihan (community spirit). Through the introduction of a lifestyle living in community with others, my semester with Casa Bayanihan affirmed my belief in the interconnectedness of the world and its people, as best expressed by the Filipino concept of kapwa (soul), continues to inspire me to live in love.


To learn more about how the Philippines moves students’ hearts and minds, please visit Casa Bayanihan’s website, Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter!

Grace Carlson

Grace Carlson

Grace Carlson lives and works in Metro Manila, Philippines co-directing the alternative study abroad program, Casa Bayanihan. She finds the work challenging, fulfilling and invigorating. For more information on Casa Bayanihan, please visit