ROME – Pope Francis’s concern over education has manifested itself many times throughout his pontificate, with his support for Scholas, now a lay movement with papal recognition, and the launching of the Global Compact for Education.

On Wednesday, at the end of the weekly audience and away from the prying eyes of the live feed provided by the Vatican, Pope Francis encountered an old friend from Argentina, someone who has been putting his vision into action at the higher education level long before Francis became pope.

María Nieves Tapia has a CV that speaks for itself: In 2002, as Argentina’s economy was falling apart, she founded the Latin American Center for Service-Learning (CLAYSS).

In 1997 she initiated the national service-learning programs of the Argentine Ministry of Education, which she coordinated until 2009, and is a founding member of the Board of the International Association for Research in Service-Learning (2005).

María Nieves Tapia. (Credit: CLAYSS Latin American Center for Service Learning.)

Tapia told Crux that service-learning is about “educational institutions creating a bond with the reality of the communities to which they belong, providing a concrete answer starting from academic knowledge, but also giving a much more concrete and real formation so that students know why and for whom they are studying.”

Last year, inspired by the Global Compact for Education, which was promoted by the Vatican’s Congregation for Education, they launched the Uniservitate Award, that will grant $80,000 to different projects in the service-learning field.

The initiative, she told Crux, seeks to help university students make effective contributions to the solution of socio-environmental problems, identified and addressed in solidarity with organizations and community members.

This gives the students the opportunity to apply that which they are learning before they graduate, from summer missionary experiences in the slums of Argentina to using nanotechnology to purify water in rural areas of India.

The two decades of CLAYSS has allowed them to build a network composed of universities throughout the world, which they divided in seven regions, including North and Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, and Asia.

This network came in handy for Ukraine’s Catholic University in L’viv: When the war started, some professors had to flee the country, and they have since found a home in various European universities. Thanks to this network, students from Ukraine who made their way to England have re-enrolled, free of charge, in British universities. DePaul University in Chicago also rose to the challenge, offering lectures online for those students who remained in the country.

Also in the network are universities from countries such as Kosovo and Bosnia, both of which stepped up to help professors in Ukraine plan for eventual reconciliation and healing processes, and also to help rebuild the country’s cultural life.

A university in Romania is currently compiling traditional Ukrainian folk songs, and the local students sing them for the new arrivals from their neighboring country.

These are but a handful of examples of what service-learning is doing to help the millions who have fled Ukraine since Feb. 24.

Service-learning, Tapia said, “serves as a bridge between academic life and pastoral life, and it fulfills Pope Francis’s call for education to include the heart and the hands – not just the head.”

As an institution, Tapia said, CLAYSS helps to integrate research and teaching with the spirituality of service, helping to build a universal fraternity, one which is not only linked to the Catholic Church, since many of the universities they work with are either not Catholic, or in regions where Catholics are a minority, such as the Middle East.

Though CLAYSS does not work exclusively with Catholic Universities, Tapia said she is inspired by her faith, and hopes that through her own witness to inspire others, particularly the students, to encounter Christ. Or, if nothing else, she hopes they find in others a brother or sister, and promote a culture of human fraternity.

“I always say that the last exam we will get in our lives, is not a trigonometry one, nor geography nor history,” she said. “It will be about how we treated our ‘neighbors.’ And those in a Catholic university setting will be graded on their ability to teach to the students to see in the other someone worthy of respect due to the dignity we have as children of God.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma