Living their calling

Two alumni started at Marquette as engineering students. Now they are on a faith-inspired journey as Jesuits.

Opus College alumnus Ryan Serfas, S.J. (left), Eng ’19, took his First Vows on Aug. 14, 2021, at St. Thomas More. He was joined by friend and fellow Opus alum Justin Prom, S.J., Eng ’18, who took his First Vows a year earlier in the same church.

By Claire Nowak, Comm ’16

Opus College of Engineering alumni Justin Prom, S.J., and Ryan Serfas, S.J., don’t have traditional engineering jobs. As Jesuits in the stage of formation known as First Studies, their schedules include daily Mass, silent prayer, philosophy readings and community service projects. Both are studying for master’s degrees in philosophy — Serfas, Eng ’19, at Fordham University and Prom, Eng ’18, at Loyola University Chicago. Yet, every day, they put their engineering educations to good use. 

“We were, of course, learning skills specific to engineering,” Prom says of his undergraduate education. “But a huge focus of the program was training in a way of problem solving — of systematically looking at a problem, identifying its most basic components, and then with that knowledge, coming up with the solution.”

Much of the men’s current work relies on understanding people and situations at their most basic level. It influences Prom’s approach to giving spiritual guidance to people struggling with their faith, and it helps Serfas better understand philosophy assignments. Their more technical skills also come in handy. Serfas, for instance, teaches math to middle school students at St. Ignatius School in the Bronx and helps run their STEM club. 

“One of the things that’s so cool and beautiful about the Jesuits is that they make use of the gifts and experience that guys bring,” he says.

Granted, they didn’t intend to use their gifts this way. As freshmen, Prom planned to pursue a career in biomedical engineering, and Serfas one in mechanical engineering. Both became heavily involved in Campus Ministry, which helped spark their friendship — and their separate but nearly simultaneous desires for the priesthood. By Prom’s last year at Marquette, he was set on joining the Jesuits, and Serfas was experiencing the “unmistakable” call to do the same. Both entered the Society of Jesus only a few months after graduating. 

Justin Prom and Ryan Serfas became friends while both were students in the Opus College of Engineering.

A defining characteristic of the Jesuit order is to “Go where the need is greatest.” For Serfas, that means spending First Studies, which lasts about three years, living and working in impoverished Bronx neighborhoods. All his students at St. Ignatius School live below the poverty line. The placement initially made him a bit uncomfortable: “As a white man, I kind of stick out.” 

What changed his perspective was a phrase that stuck with him from his time in the E-Lead program: “Come in right.” It essentially means to approach new situations with the right attitude through active listening and observation rather than immediately pointing out what may be “wrong.” With that in mind, he and his Jesuit roommates decided to simply get to know the locals.

“We started building relationships and hearing stories,” he says. “I’m grateful to get to know our neighbors … and not judge the way they’re carrying their crosses.”

Prom takes a similar attitude as chaplain to Loyola’s women’s track team (perhaps inspired by his E-Lead participation). He organizes service projects for the student-athletes in the style of Labre Ministry, which emphasizes starting conversations and relationships with people experiencing homelessness while providing them food. The women often get as much out of it as those they serve. “To see them have this heart-opening, world-opening experience, saying things like, ‘I didn’t realize that the poor could inspire me in such a way,’” Prom says. “It’s so exciting.” 

That these men are on the same journey from Marquette engineers to the priesthood is still surreal to them, and they don’t take it for granted. Frequent phone calls with each other let them share the highs and lows of formation and let loose after long days. As much as they know they are using their gifts the way God intended, these Jesuits also find comfort in pursuing their vocation with a friend.