April 6, 2006

Students Redefine Spring Break Trips

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Many Cornell students enjoyed the sun and sand at the beach, experienced great snow conditions at ski resorts, relaxed at home or participated in other activities commonly associated with the collegiate stereotype of spring break, but a significant number of Cornellians also dedicated their mid-semester vacations to serving others in a number of unique ways. From reconstructing the devastated ninth ward of New Orleans to building houses in Nicaragua, numerous Cornell students made a huge impact on countless lives during their spring breaks.

Cornell sponsors an Alternative Breaks program, which organized 12 trips this year to areas throughout the United States. According to the Cornell Public Service Center’s Website, “the mission of the Alternative Breaks program is to promote service-learning through direct public service with regional, national and international communities, to heighten social awareness, enhance personal growth and advocate lifelong social action.”

Courtney Chisholm ’09 participated in an Alternative Break trip in Welch, W.V. at SAFE (Stop Abusive Family Environments), a battered women’s shelter that also houses homeless families. Chisholm was one of six volunteers in the student-led group.

Chisholm explained that during their time at SAFE, the students led workshops for the women, including a journaling session, painting murals in the shelter and entertaining the kids with face painting and games. She described her spring break as rewarding and also explained how she was surprised by the diversity and wide age demographic of the people at the shelter.

“The experience was amazing. We got a lot closer with the people than we expected,” Chisholm said.

Lynne Feeley ’06, like Chisholm, attended one of the trips sponsored by Cornell’s Alternative Breaks during her sophomore year. She also found the experience to be incredibly meaningful, calling it “one of the most formative weeks of my life.”

However, this year, Feeley went to New Orleans for the week of spring break and helped clean up the devastation from Hurricane Katrina with the assistance of approximately 25 other Cornellians and in cooperation with the grassroots organization, Common Ground Collective.

According to Common Ground Collective’s website, the organization was established by three volunteers following the destruction left in the wake of Katrina. Since its creation, the community-run establishment has increased to include hundreds of volunteers, a number that expanded during spring break with hundreds of college students joining the effort.

“Common Ground’s mission is to provide short term relief for victims of hurricane disasters in the gulf coast region, and long term support in rebuilding the communities affected in the New Orleans area. … The work … emphasizes people working together to rebuild their lives in sustainable ways,” the website stated.

Feeley was one of the numerous students who worked to rebuild the upper and lower ninth ward of New Orleans, an area that primarily housed African Americans that was destroyed by the hurricane and is currently in danger of being further demolished by the government since it is essentially a ghetto, according to Feeley.

Like other volunteers, Feeley’s work consisted of rebuilding and finishing the construction of houses for residents in the area. She also made sure that Common Ground remained in operation by doing chores, such as cooking for the other volunteers. Her main project, however, was to register voters in the area for the city council and mayoral elections by campaigning and sending absentee ballots to people in the ninth ward.

“My experience was really diverse. … I was privileged to have the opportunity to talk to residents,” Feeley said.

What was common in all of the narratives of the residents was their gratitude for all of the volunteers who were helping them because no one else had offered them assistance, Feeley explained. She described the devastation of the ninth ward as war-torn and completely ravished. She said that even though parts of the city, such as the French Quarter, look fine, there is unimaginable damage that begins at the border of the Ninth Ward.

“It was a really intense experience. I had the opportunity to immerse myself in a culture that I have been away from. It opened my eyes to what diversity actually means,” Feeley said. “There are issues going on [in the ninth ward of New Orleans] that deal with race that people are far away from.”

Feeley believes that everyone needs to visit the ninth ward of New Orleans to see the devastation and to help fulfill the mission that so many volunteers have already worked to support.

“I was walking around someone else’s devastation, and in a week I’d be leaving. Even though it was a short time, it was a really important experience for me to have,” Feeley said. “That short stay has made me responsible for telling the story of my experience by continuing my work here at Cornell by telling my narrative, sharing my pictures, etc.”

In addition to spring breaks where students participated in Cornell’s Alternative Breaks program or rebuilt New Orleans, Habitat for Humanity also sent five groups of Cornellians to various locations in the U.S. on service trips. Through Cornell’s sponsorship, the organization sent students to Washington, D.C., Lexington, V.A., Hilton Head and Mount Pleasant, S.C. and Wilmington, N.C. in order to build residences for those who are impoverished and cannot afford housing.

Amanda Malone ’09 was a leader of the 11-person group in Mount Pleasant, S.C., which was also joined by another student group from SUNY New Paltz. The two groups worked in conjunction to build the frames, set the foundations, put up the siding and landscape the yards for a number of houses in the area.

Habitat for Humanity, an international organization works to “build simple, decent affordable houses in partnership with those who lack adequate shelter. … Since 1976, Habitat has built more than 175,000 houses, providing shelter for nearly 900,000 people worldwide,” according to their website.

Malone described the trip as being labor intensive, though she believes that the result of the work was worthwhile and rewarding.

“It was a lot of fun. It was a lot of work but you get to meet so many new people too. And I’d rather do that than stay at home and just sleep or do homework,” Malone said.

While most students who traveled south of the border went to resorts with sunny beaches, others journeyed with service trips to impoverished countries in Latin America. One such group went to San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala with the Cornell Catholic Community. The group was comprised of 14 people, including 10 students, Andra Benson, who initiated the trip at Cornell, Catholic Chaplain Father Dan McMullin, Anthony Ingraffea, the Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering, and his wife.

The group’s main mission was to build wood stoves for the people in the Guatemalan village since they provide an inexpensive alternative to electrical stoves and are superior to open fires, which cause health risks. Additionally, students visited smaller villages, churches and a hospital clinic in the area, conducted a land survey and interacted with the villagers.

Julia Capurso ’07, a member of the group, explained that there was a huge cultural disparity between the students and the villagers, especially in regard to language, but that this disparity did not stop student-villager interaction. Melissa Lin ’08, another student volunteer, highlighted the economic differences that exist within the country, where 70-90 percent of the land is controlled by about 20 families, leaving the majority of the country’s citizens impoverished.

“We interacted with families, which was good because we got to learn more about their lifestyle. To them, your presence is really important,” Lin said. “[The trip] was definitely an eye-opener. You realize how people are contented with what they have. Coming from the U.S. culture, it is good to know that contentment.”

Both Capurso and Lin also emphasized the hospitality and warmth of the villagers. The students were even invited to a wedding within the community.

“It was amazing to me how much their houses felt like home. It was the people there that made it so welcoming,” Capurso said.

Capurso explained that the trip was not only a great opportunity to travel, but also to work cooperatively with people from another country, to be exposed to a different culture and to grow closer to fellow Cornellians.

“It is so hard to describe how much the experience changed me. You have to go down there and experience it yourselves. The culture is so beautiful, and the people are so welcoming,” Lin said.

While the Cornell Catholic Community sponsored a group in Guatemala, the Cornell chapter of Bridges to Community, a non-profit community development organization, went to the village of La Borgoña in Nicaragua. The trip was organized as a directed study, led by Prof. Therese O’Connor, hotel administration.

The 18 students who went to Nicaragua are currently enrolled in Hotel Administration 499: Undergraduate Independent Study Service Learning Nicaragua, which meets once a week during the spring semester for an hour and a half. Marcus Cohn ’07 explained that the trip is the culmination of the class. The goal of the class before the trip is to provide education about the culture, history and politics of the country and its people, while the goal following the trip is to reflect on the experience and apply it to the everyday lives of the students.

The focus of the trip was constructing houses for the villagers. The group finished two houses and poured the foundation for other houses in order to assist the efforts of future volunteer groups.

In addition to building houses and visiting with the impoverished villagers, the students also visited the university in Nicaragua.

“We saw both sides of rich and poor, which was hard but also very interesting,” said John Zimmer ’06.

To complement the knowledge learned in the classroom, the students also met with business leaders, explored the poultry industry of the country and had discussions with the mayor and ex-guerrilla fighters.

Zimmer, who wants to return to Nicaragua this summer with three other students from the group, explained the community dynamic: “[The trip] is about engaging with the community and culture rather than just being exposed to it … It’s amazing how close you can get with the community and how much love they show.”

Highlighting the bond shared by the students, who represent almost every college and graduation year, Cohn said: “Seeing everyone come together as a group, take in our surroundings and having it change us is the most rewarding thing for me.”

Lauren Wein ’09 discussed the future implications that the trip would have for her, a notion that was shared by all of the group members. Because of this trip, “so many of us have re-evaluated what we know and what we want to do in the future,” said Rachel Goldfarb ’07.

Students who participated in various alternative spring breaks were influenced by their experiences in ways that cannot begin to be captured by this article. Although the trips affected students in unique and personal ways, all of those who participated in an alternative spring break found it immensely rewarding, and oftentimes, life-altering. Every student enthusiastically recommended a service trip as an alternative for anyone who wants to escape the ordinary spring break and replace the stereotypical vacation setting with an environment devoted to learning about others and oneself through service.

Archived article by Jamie Leonard
Sun Staff Writer