Bringing a ‘culture of life’ to local college campuses

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, October 2, 2016

When the March for Life Chicago made its way through the Loop in January, the young people carrying the pro-life banner at the head of the group were college students, proud members of pro-life groups on their campuses.

Those groups, affiliated with Students for Life of Illinois, do the sometimes thankless job of advocating for life issues with their fellow students. They also work to make sure that students who get pregnant unexpectedly know that they can come to them both for emotional support and connections to resources in their communities.

Among them is DePaul University’s Students for Life organization, led by president Justine Carlson, a junior.

“We are bringing the culture of life to DePaul,” said Carlson, who said she learned about the pro-life movement from her youth group at the Cathedral of St. Raymond in Joliet, Illinois.

The group, with about 15 core members and several others who sometimes participate, holds lots of socials to build friendship and familiarity among its members. It also tries to build awareness by setting up tables at various times and places on campus.

“We try to do it in a way that’s welcoming and inclusive,” Carlson said. “We’ll have snacks or something, and then give pamphlets out.”

Their materials offer information about pro-life issues and also resource lists for students who are pregnant, Carlson said. When pregnant students approach the group for help, they are referred to Aid for Women, a Chicago-based pregnancy resource center that can help with material needs and which operates two maternity homes, one for single mothers facing a pregnancy who need a place to live, and one for the mothers and their babies after they are born.

“We just had our student involvement fair, and we got a lot of people who were at least willing to talk about it,” Carlson said. “I see a shift in their facial expressions when I tell them what we do for pregnant women, that we do actually care about women.”

Illinois is one of a handful of states with an umbrella organization and full-time staff to help students organize. Kevin Grillot, the executive director, said the group works with students on about 20 campuses. The groups ebb and flow, he said, as their leaders graduate and new leaders come in.

“There’s constant turnover,” he said.

Students for Life of Illinois has been around for more than 10 years, having been born as a project of students at Newman Hall, the residence hall operated by St. John’s Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign.

The group presents pro-life conferences, offers advice and resources for advocacy and maintains lists of resources for pregnant and parenting students. Students for Life of Illinois staff members also mentor student prolife advocates.

Often, the mentors work to help students become comfortable being public advocates for life issues.

“There has been a move toward the middle,” Grillot said, with more students saying they are personally pro-life but don’t want to impose their views on anyone or even speak about it because they don’t want to offend anyone.

Carlson said she has had friendships change when people find out about her pro-life work, but it’s something she needs to do.

“If we just talk to each other, nothing gets done,” Carlson said.

“The only way to develop confidence is to talk to people we know don’t agree with us.”

Nursing students Mary Brinckerhoff and Helen Marry, both juniors at the University of Illinois at Chicago, know they will face a lot of that this year. They both transferred from the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, where they were on the executive board of the campus pro-life group. Now they want to start a similar group at UIC, informally gauging support this fall and planning to apply for student group status in the spring semester.

“Right now, we want to foster that closeness,” Brinckerhoff said. “It can be kind of hard being prolife when it’s so countercultural.”

“It’s important to know there’s someone who agrees with you, even if it’s just one person,” Marry said. “It makes such a big difference.

Brinckerhoff said she was raised in a pro-life family, but what that really meant became clear when her sister had an unplanned pregnancy and chose to have her baby. Because Brinckerhoff made her stance known, another friend facing an unplanned pregnancy in high school came to her for advice and ended up keeping her baby and asking Brinckerhoff to be her godmother.

For Marry, helping a pregnant students in Champaign showed her the need for a pro-life students organization. There was the material help, with baby showers and so forth, but that wasn’t the most important thing.

“I think the main thing we gave them was friendship and a sense of community,” Marry said. “We let them know there were people on campus who supported them.”

Many pro-life students know the pain of abortion, Grillot said.

“There are a lot of students that have the pro-life knowledge,” he said. “Abortion is in their life in a personal way. Maybe they learned their parents have had an abortion, or they have friends who had an abortion, or maybe they had an abortion and they’re suffering. There’s a deep pain that’s unspoken but personal.”


  • abortion
  • depaul university
  • students for life of illinois
  • univeristy of illinois-chicago

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