Taking a Service Break
Spring Break! Images of white sandy beaches, sparkling blue water, endless parties. But not for everyone. This spring, as every year for the last thirteen, a group of highly motivated, energetic, and dedicated students from the University of Illinois packed their work clothes and set off for an Alternative Spring Break experience. For the modest sum of $200, each was given the opportunity to live in Spartan quarters and work from sunup to sundown, while having some of the best experiences of their young lives.
Alternative Spring Break (ASB), a student-run program of the University YMCA, has grown from a single domestic offering to sixteen, plus an international component and a curriculum-based program. Competition is very keen for the limited spaces in each offering. The mission of ASB is to "engage in social and environmental activism through direct service" and to encourage "a commitment to diversity and lifelong learning, initiated by community interactions and reflection." This year's cohort included fifteen students from the College of Commerce. InSight spoke to six of them to get first-hand reports on the experience.
Clearly a learning experience, the program is designed to build closeness among the participants and between the students and the people they help. Each evening there is a period of time called Reflection, when the students gather together to discuss the experiences of the day. Once students are back on campus, a similar meeting is held for all the groups to share their experiences. "Oddly enough," one of the students remarked, "each group thought that its experience was the best."
This year, Felicity and her group of twelve went to Boston, for a program called Women and Family Empowerment. From the start, the trip was an adventure. The day they left they ran into incredible snowstorms and had to creep along at 15 mph. "I was the driver, and it was stressful driving in those conditions," Felicity told InSight. This trip was quite different from the others. They stayed at the Boston YMCA, "the best hotel I ever stayed in. We didn't have to sleep on the floor or eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches." The all-woman group of students worked with NOW, helping out with some of their current projects. One that really moved Felicity was the Clothesline Project. Abused women paint T-shirts that tell their stories and then these shirts are formed into a traveling exhibit. The purpose is to raise awareness of the abuse of women at home. The group worked with NOW on a variety of projects aimed at securing better rights for women. Some of the work they did involved menial tasks, but according to Felicity this didn't matter. "It was a great learning experience about the issues and what can and is being done about them." Their final outing was a brown-bag lunch at Harvard's Public Policy Institute. "The talk was about childcare and the problems that we will all face in the 21st century as more and more women enter the work place," Felicity reported. "This should be a family problem, not a women's problem."
"Going on ASB gets you out of the Champaign bubble," Felicity told me very earnestly. "You get out of yourself and away from your personal concerns. I enjoy community service, and this is a week when you can devote yourself to this activity completely." Quite clearly, ASB taught something that doesn't come from books. "It opens your eyes to the breadth of circumstances and the diversity of people who live in this country. Just getting to know the people who run these programs is uplifting. Their capacity for giving is inspiring." For Felicity, as for all the other students I spoke with, the friendships born on these trips have been lasting and rewarding. "I was amazed how a group of strangers at the beginning of the week could grow into such a tight, cohesive group by the end of the week, through working together, frequently under harsh conditions." The structure of the program deserves a lot of credit for this bonding, according to Felicity. "The daily meetings where you rehash the day and the issues led to a great deal of openness and understanding, of each other but also of yourself."
After Felicity graduates in May she will spend the summer in Colorado as a camp counselor one last fling before joining Andersen Consulting in Chicago as a management change consultant. She is a James Scholar, a Chancellor's Scholar, and a member of both Alpha Kappa Psi and Alpha Delta Pi. She serves on the International Advisory Committee and works in the Study Abroad Office. During her time at the university she has won many honors.
A long ride in a crowded van helped to remove barriers quickly for this diverse group of thirteen students. Living arrangements were hardly luxurious they slept in two rooms lined with cots and shared one bathroom in a partially renovated house. According to Michelle, "the conditions were hard, but the trip offered great opportunities for bonding and building close friendships." In Nick's words, "Most of us didn't know each other before the trip but we developed close friendships and I observed great personal growth, in myself and others, from the first day to the last. You could see the closeness develop in the growing openness exhibited during Reflection, as we came to feel more comfortable with each other and to rely on each other."
Three local supervisors, working men from the community, were assigned to organize the jobs and to work with the students. According to both Michelle and Nick, getting to know these three was an important part of their experience.
As Michelle put it, "We all felt that we learned more about life from these three than we ever could during our entire college education. Talking with them and learning about their experiences made all of us in the group appreciate how much we have, how much has been given to us by our parents and circumstances, and how lucky we are." From working with the supervisors, the students came to have a strong understanding of what life can be like for the great many people who are not so fortunate as the students on this trip. As Nick put it, "We gained a new respect for these people, for what they do with what they have."
Because the Illinois team was the first student group to arrive on the site this year, a lot of their work involved preparation for serious renovation. They cleaned out houses, delivered bathtubs, and brought food to veteran and church groups to feed the poor. Their first assignment was to clean up a house that had been vacated when the occupants were evicted. "This was really hard," Michelle said. "The family had to leave without any preparation. We found a birthday cake on the table and they left behind photo albums and dirty underwear. We all came to work hard but hadn't been prepared for the emotional shock of what it means to live in poverty."
This was Michelle's first ASB trip. In addition to learning to look
at her life with new eyes and new appreciation, Michelle expressed
Like all the other students I spoke with, Nick found this trip,
his second with ASB, an extraordinary growth experience. He put
Michelle, a native of Kankakee, is a sophomore majoring in finance. Although only in her second year, Michelle is extremely active on campus. She is on the executive board of Commerce Council, involved in Volunteer Illini Football Recruiting, a member of Alpha Gamma Delta, Greek Intravarsity, and Atius Sachem. Next year she will be studying abroad at the Aarhus School of Business in Denmark.
Nick, a graduating senior in finance, will start working for Credit Suisse, First Boston, in Chicago, as an investment banking analyst in the Health Care Group, after he returns from travels in Europe with a fellow ASB participant, Greg Stokke. Nick, who comes from Naperville, is a past exec of Commerce Council and a member of Alpha Kappa Psi and Volunteer Illini Projects.
The next project takes us from the rural environs to the inner city of Detroit. For his second ASB project Greg Stokke elected to take part in the Youth Violence Intervention Program. His group worked with an organization called SOSAD (Save Our Sons and Daughters). Everyone in the organization had lost a child through violence. What seems like a very sad situation from the outside actually proved to be very uplifting, according to Greg. "It was heartening to see how these people had turned a terrible negative into a positive, and how upbeat they were. Working to combat neighborhood violence provided a purpose."
The work of this group was to go into grades K-12 in community schools and deliver a message "there is an alternative to violence." "Mostly, we presented our message through skits. Our task was to hold interactive discussions with the students and to provide a role model for an alternative to violence. The central mission was `peace' and one of our activities was to have the students write down their ideal of a perfect world where peace presides and then to connect these ideals into a paper chain."
Before arriving in Detroit, Greg remarked that he was a bit fearful. He wasn't sure how a group of middle-class white kids would be viewed going into largely black, inner-city schools. But, he reported that the reception was surprisingly positive and the students readily shared their experiences with the Illinois students. Greg said the students were really surprised that a group of college kids would give up their Spring Break to spend the time talking to them, trying to show them ways to make their lives better. "From the start, this gained us their respect," Greg noted. The differences in the life experiences of the Illinois students and the Detroit students were of course huge. "They were very surprised when I told them I had never been in a fight and didn't know how to fight. This was beyond their experience, at any age." But, despite the differences, Greg found it encouraging to see that a great many of these students had hope, aspired to go to college, and could view the ASB students as role models. "Despite all that had happened to so many of these kids, they still had hope for the future," Greg reported. Mirroring the thoughts of all the other students, Greg marveled that "Ironically, I went on this trip to help others, but actually found that the trip did more for me. It opened my eyes to the advantages I've had, made me appreciate how lucky I've been, and made me ashamed of my petty complaints. I was also impressed with the other students on my trip. It's amazing what a group of diverse students, virtually strangers at the outset, can accomplish when they are brought together by a common cause and work toward a single goal."
Greg, a finance major from DeKalb, will join Nick for a European tour after his May graduation. Then he will work at State Farm in Bloomington, in the common stock investment department. Greg too is a former Commerce Council exec and is active in many other service organizations. An outstanding student, Greg graduated Bronze Tablet.
Also an ASB two-timer, Liz Weir worked with pediatric AIDS patients in Washington, D.C., this spring. Last year she went to an Indian reservation in Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, for a cultural development program, where she learned about the culture of the Chippewa family of tribes.
In what appears to be a very creative start to the program, the group went to New York to see "Rent" before traveling to Washington. "We thought this would provide some background for us," Liz told InSight. "All the children in the day care center (ages 4-16) were either infected or affected by AIDS. The older children are usually there to accompany younger siblings. Although limited to 150 students, this is the only such program in the entire city of D.C. It's clearly not enough," reported Liz with great concern. All the full-time workers in the centers are therapists or social workers who work closely with the entire family, trying to provide guidance to help children through this terrible trauma of illness and loss. "Our tasks were to work with the children, play with them , and get them to relate to us. We also provided help to the center in any form they needed clerical, organizing volunteers, and so forth," Liz noted. But what impressed her the most was that "Despite the problems these children had and the losses they had suffered, they acted like regular kids. They talked about school problems, and discussed T.V. shows, but then might casually interject a comment like, `My Mom died last week.'"
It was clear from talking with Liz that she was in awe of the program director, of the work she did, and of her dedication and compassion. The center is located in a town house donated by the mother of two children who died from AIDS. Art, music, and dance therapy are a large part of the program because they help the kids express what they are thinking about these terrible things that are happening to them and those around them. Like all the others in the program, Liz learned "what living with adversity can really be like. I was stunned by the ability of these children to deal with the horrors that life handed them. I was awed by their maturity and their ability to deal with the serious problems they faced every day. Those of us in the group were all from very different backgrounds than these inner city kids. The experience opened our eyes and gave us a new appreciation for what we have and taught us to view our own complaints with a new perspective."
The living arrangements were very spare. Despite working shifts from 2:30 to 9 p.m., there was still time to enjoy the city touring the museums in the morning and the monuments at night. All in all, this was another great trip.
Liz, a sophomore from Rock Falls, is majoring in accounting. She is very active in Commerce Council and Alpha Kappa Psi, and works as a tour guide for the university. She has developed the skill of walking backwards to an art. Next year she will be studying international finance in Barcelona, Spain.
Our final report is from Melissa Whitman, who took part in the first inter-national program sponsored by ASB to Guatemala to work with the San Lucas Mission. This program was open only to students who had already gone on an ASB. Two years ago, Melissa went to Luck, Wisconsin, to live on a commune and work on political activism issues, like stopping nuclear proliferation. Melissa also had another advantage: she was able to converse with the locals in Spanish.
Of the many self-help projects the mission sponsors, Melissa spent most of her time on two. "I helped with the construction of a library that was being built with funds contributed in honor of one of the students killed in the Columbine shootings. The parents of this student, who were actually on site while I was there, donated the funds, first to build a school for the natives, and now to construct a library. I also worked with a medical team that goes out into the country to treat the population. While the doctors talked with the mothers, I played with the children. My Spanish really proved to be useful here." It was clear from conversation with Melissa that she and many of the other ASB students were moved by what they witnessed at the mission and in the surrounding countryside. Several of them, including Melissa, agreed to sponsor a child and met with the mother and child before leaving.
Melissa, who hails from Wauconda, Illinois, is a senior in finance. Her interest is to find a job in emerging markets, possibly working for a non-profit organization. She was married in February, to a Briton, who may be transferred to London shortly, so she is keeping her work options open.
The altruism shown by the students I spoke with, and by extension all those who participated in this program, is both impressive and heart-warming. In this age, when we hear so much about the materialism of young people, how encouraging and inspiring to meet so many who are determined to make a difference. Like the students who are "uplifted" by participating in ASB, I too have been uplifted by learning about their experiences and was eager to share them with Commerce alumni.