Here We Go!

As I begin my journey on my third Alternative Spring Break experience, I can honestly say I have never felt more joyous, hopeful, excited, or nervous.  I truly believe that when the passion and hard work of every person in our classroom comes together we can do something amazing in the short time we have together. We have this amazing opportunity to immerse ourselves in this topic and then put what we have learned into action. I keep telling myself to let go of expectations, as so often when lofty expectations are not reached, you are left with disappointment and dejection. I don’t want my expectations hold me back in any way. Genocide and refugee advocacy is a foreign world to me, so I do have my fears and worries.  What change can a group of privileged Americans like me make in the life of someone who has seen and experienced the worst of humanity? In many of my academic classes I hear the continued message that true social change doesn’t come about with individual action, but from structural change. Knowing this can make me feel so small, like whatever service I participate in will all be in vain. In my time at JMU I have become passionate about helping other people, so I will continue to learn and serve as best I can.

Some of my worries are calmed because of the incredible impact I have seen service learning make.  The model set forward by JMU’s Alternative Break program that emphasizes lasting community impact and intentionality of service sets us apart from many service trips. I have come to realize that education makes all the difference in the world. I have seen both participants and trip leaders set out on their trips with little core education about their social issue, their agency, or the populations they will work with. I think that this lack of preparation can unintentionally cause more harm than good.  A group of people with little knowledge of the culture or issues a group faces can disrupt the lives of the marginalized groups volunteers intended to serve.  I have felt this way on my previous trips that had a focus of environment. In these situations we joined the park service to help them complete projects and work that needed more people and resources than they had access too. But when it took us so long to learn the processes of things like working a chainsaw or building bridges, it took away from our productivity and I feared we were more of a nuisance to the rangers. I hope to have a vastly different experience this time around, in which our time spent serving is productive, intentional, and reaches the (reasonable) goals we set.

My heart is full. Full of excitement, nerves, and worries.  The most beautiful thing about the heart is its capacity to grow. To hold more love, more experiences, more knowledge.  This experience is going to challenge me in so many ways, and I greet that challenge with open arms.


Anxious, Eager and Hopeful

Is it March yet? It feels as though our trip is an eternity away. Just thinking about our journey to Phoenix to work with the Lost Boys of Sudan and Catholic Charities evokes many emotions.  I am excited for the opportunity, I am anxious for the unknown, I am eager to learn and I am hopeful of what’s to come. I have to admit that before our class meeting last week and the completion of a few readings on the topic, my knowledge about genocide and refugees was miniscule. There is so much to learn before I climb aboard that plane at Dulles. If I don’t understand the notion of genocide in its entirety I don’t think the trip will be as impactful. For empathy is everything.  I want to understand and more importantly I want to feel.

Anxious. Despite being handed a pre-trip packet and doing a lot of research about the Lost Boys Center as well as Catholic Charities, my anxiety about the trip comes from not knowing. Reading testimonies or watching movies that capture some of the journey these boys have gone through is one thing, but being there; physically being present and talking to people who have been through unimaginable struggles is scary. No class, no matter how great the professor is can prepare you completely for something like this. Despite being scary, the unknown and anxiety I speak of are also so great! Great because I’m pushing my personal boundaries and going outside of my comfort zone.

Eager to learn. My mind is open and ready to absorb as much information as possible about advocacy, genocide, Phoenix, the Lost Boys, Catholic Charities and any other thing the class throws my way. Sometimes I think that my so-called “pretty life” has created ignorance about things that matter such as genocide. How have I gone 20 years being  unaware of the ongoing persecution of groups of people? As mentioned above, my knowledge on this subject is minimal, so I’m eager to understand.

Hope.  Wow, I’m so hopeful of what this trip will bring. I hope to grow as a person. Grow, in every sense of the word. Grow in passion, grow in knowledge, grow by listening to others, grow by sharing my heart, and grow into an advocate.  Perhaps what I’m most hoping for as a result of this trip is joy. I want to bring joy into people’s lives who know little about happiness but I also want to take whole lot of joy back home to Virginia with me.

The concept of service learning in the most basic sense is learning and then applying what was learned by doing community service and then reflecting on the knowledge and service.  However, I think that as the semester goes on, this broad definition of service learning will be refined and take on a much deeper meaning. As my pre-trip reflection is coming to a close, I realize that this class will embody what some may call “good service learning.” We are reflecting before our trip, and learning the multifaceted aspects about genocide and advocacy particularly regarding the South Sudanese. Refugee resettlement advocacy will go far beyond our short time spent in Phoenix.

Arguably, the most important aspect of “good service learning” is openness. We must have an open mind to cultures that are vastly different from our own. We must exhibit tolerance and acceptance for all cultures. The Lost Boys have so much to teach us,so we must possess an open heart and open ears, to truly gain everything we can from this experience. All of mine; which are open.


Giving vs. Gaining, or Both

It is quite a daunting idea, to take on a service-learning experience that aims to help people who have endured suffering that I could never fathom. However, my apprehension is not clouding my excitement to be able to work with a community who I already feel a connection to. After working with the issue of the ongoing genocide in Darfur, I am looking forward to being able to broaden my efforts of awareness and understanding that will come from working with the organization and the people that are a part of the Lost Boys and Catholic Charities. Refugees are a group that should be embraced as part of our global community and I hope that through this experience I am able to do my part in working for the best interest of refugees.

I have a lot of things that I hope to gain and to give on this trip, which may be difficult given the weeklong time restraints. I hope to gain an understanding of how best to help the refugees that are new and those who have been in the Phoenix area for sometime. I also hope to gain an idea of my future and what it could hold. At this point, I am undecided about the path I would like to take in my career, but refugee advocacy and resettlement would be one that I would definitely consider. I know that I want to work with marginalized populations so the more experience I can have in this area the better I can improve how I am able to serve them in the future. I hope to learn, to learn in terms of my own capacities and in terms of learning from what the refugees will be able to teach me.

Giving on this trip, however, is more important than the lessons that I am hoping to gain. I hope to give the refugees a sense of comfort in knowing that they have not been forgotten and that there are people who care about them. I want to give them whatever help they need to make their new lives easier. I want to give them support through my experience, and not to just spend a week working with them and let that support falter, but to begin with this week of service a life-long connection to their cause.

For me, the purpose of this trip is not a vacation with a few hours of community service attached to it. I intend to fully embrace the concept of service-learning that our alternative break program is initiating. I hope to give my time and to give the best that I can, and hopefully take something away from this trip that I am able to impart on others. I think that this trip has been modeled excellently so that we are able to best serve the refugee community. The educational process that we are going through to understand the background of genocide, refugees, and the impacts both have will make the time we are giving more beneficial because we will spend less time preparing and more time doing.

To me, our trip is one of the best I could envision for being able to do as much of the service and learn combination as possible. What sticks out to me is that our trip has the important element of reflection built in as a core piece of the process. Reflection is going to offer us an outlet during this trip to talk about our emotional progress throughout the trip, to discuss how much, or even how little, we think the impact we are making is.

I do have some trepidation though. I worry that I have already invested too much in what my expectation of this trip will be, that I expect to come away from it with a completely changed outlook on life and that self-gratification that my work could impact the refugee cause on a larger scale. Who am I, a college student, to say that my week of working with Sudanese refugees is going to change the entire dynamic of their lives? But this nagging negative feeling is not overwhelming my ambition to make the most of this experience. I want to throw myself into this adventure wholeheartedly, and to me that means that I will be more than ready to undertake the journey that lies ahead.


“The Desire to Reach Hearts is Wise”

When I first learned about this trip to Phoenix, I was apprehensive and nervous about working with refugees. I had gone on many mission trips in high school to help rebuild homes, but I have never gone somewhere to work directly with people. The Lost Boys of Sudan and those of the Catholic Charities have witnessed and endured some things I could not even begin to fathom. Will I, a small privileged girl from Virginia, really make any difference to these survivors? I complain about filling my car up with gas or that my iPhone dies too quickly. I almost have feelings of guilt about going to meet the refugees and act like I have any idea of their past situations.

I believe that some people who choose to go on community service trips have an underlying thought process that they are in someway “above” those they are helping. They go to volunteer the less fortunate in hopes to gain insight. However, I have completely different thoughts about what I think this trip will be like. While they have gone through unimaginable circumstances, they have so many qualities I wish I possessed. Seeing the good in all circumstances and not giving up when the going gets tough. I deal with so many personal issues and I often have moments of complete despair. From this trip, I know it should not be about me, but I hope to realize that no matter what circumstance you are in you CAN be happy, to embrace life and the surroundings and to be grateful for every little thing.

Happiness is something that means a lot to me. I take happiness very personally because it is something I deal with. Making someone smile, in my opinion, is one of the best things you could ever do for someone. I hope that during this trip, we as a team can make someone smile. I want to remind them that they have never and will never be forgotten. Refugees should be more than embraced in our society and should always feel a sense of certainty in their new lives in the United States.

In terms of successful service learning trips, I am very proud to say I am taking part in JMU’s ASB program. The way our system has ensured education on the topics, having amazing group leaders, and adequately preparing us for our trips is amazing. In order to really help others, we have to be educated on them, their situation and their environment. I am grateful to be taking a class alongside preparing for the trip because I know that it is only going to make helping the refugees more meaningful and more successful.

While it is natural to be nervous or have questions, I feel so much better knowing that we are not being “thrown” into any situations and will not be disrupting any program when we get to Phoenix. I cannot express enough how wonderful I believe this program is and how lucky I am to have the opportunity to live with others for a week to make, even a small, difference to someone. While it may be selfish to say that I am hoping to gain perspective, I am hoping far more to give to the refugees and remind them that they are thought of and are cared about in the US.


It’s my first time service learning!

Service learning is a concept that is pretty foreign to me. As a senior in college I have had my fair share of “service-learning” classes or ‘client’ projects where I have worked with non-profit organizations but I don’t really consider those true service-learning experiences, at least not for me. I wasn’t invested in those experiences; I was working for a grade. I was never very interested in my topics and I didn’t really care if I ended up making a difference or learning anything at all, which makes for some pretty bad service learning. Good service learning requires an effort; it requires a motivation to learn, the desire to grow as a person, learn from your experiences and a drive to help.

As with most people, a majority of my knowledge of genocide is about the Holocaust and I do not know much about refugee resettlement. I feel like most of my classmates registered for this class because they are passionate about helping others and I don’t think I fit with that mold. When I first heard about this class I was not interested but after taking some time to reflect on my college experience and what I have done, I discovered that I have never done anything that is truly out of my comfort zone. I have several friends who have done something along the lines of an alternative spring break and they rave about how much they value the experience they had and how much they learned and grew as a person. I decided to take this class because I do not want to leave college lacking in an experience that is so valuable. For me it is so easy to get caught up in my own life, my own goals and my own aspirations that I often forget about the rest of the world, but I guess that just shows what a privileged life I lead. I grew up in an upper middle class family where I had anything and everything I have ever needed. Reading “One Day I Had to Run” last week really made me think. It seems so unfair. While John was hiding under dead bodies trying to survive I was finger painting in kindergarten and coming home to warm chocolate chip cookies. What seemed even more messed up to me is that there isn’t much anyone can do to stop genocide when it is happening. I had no idea it was ‘illegal’ for countries to invade a country where genocide is happening because it violates that states sovereignty. Last class Aaron mentioned that the UN watched Rwanda happen and did not/legally could not do anything about it. That shouldn’t happen; why do we live in a world that can know about genocide happening and is not able to stop it and prevent it. It’s not fair. Living in the United States it is easy to turn a blind eye because what is happening elsewhere isn’t affecting you, but that’s not fair either. It doesn’t seem fair that I am able to read John’s piece and then just continue living my life.

Honestly, I am pretty nervous about this class. I am nervous about discussing the content. I’m nervous how the content will make me feel. I’m nervous about the opinions of my classmates. I’m nervous about working with refugees. I have never volunteered before and I’ve never worked with a topic so heavy. What I can say is that I am ready to learn. I am hopeful that this class/service-learning experience will help me broaden my horizons and gain a better worldview. Good service learning requires effort, an open mind, and the desire to learn and grow with that knowledge. I know that I will get out of the class what I put into it and I promise to actively engage with the class and the content, as well as promise keep an open mind. I am excited for this class, I am excited to learn, and I am excited for how this class will help me grow as a person.


I hope to empower others like I have been empowered.

I hope to give and grow as a result of this trip. In our first class one my classmates said, “In life we are programed to take and seldom give to others”. After class I thought about what she had said and how it applied to my everyday life. I realized that I am guilty of doing this. I take all that life gives me.

From the time I was young, I was given everything I needed and majority of what I wanted. When I did not get what I wanted, I would work hard until I could get it. Whether that was persuading my parents or doing extra chores around the house. However I never gave back to them or the community that built me.

Once my classmate posed a thought that challenged my prior thinking. I started to realize that I needed to make a change in my lifestyle. I want to impact the communities I am apart of by giving them what they need rather than taking what I believe I need. From this started to think about what I will be bringing on this trip.

When I started the process of being a trip leader and going through the training with James Madison University’s Alternative Spring Break Program, I went in with the expectation that I would gain new leadership skills. I did not know if I would gain much more. The program has a retreat for all of the trip leaders in the fall. In which, we tell of the story of our self, unpack our identity and learn about race and privilege. All of these were concepts I have never been asked to talk about before. No one has ever asked me to explain to them what makes up my identity, or explained to me what privilege was. I wonder how many people have been asked that question.

Needless to say after the retreat I felt empowered, I felt understood and I felt challenged. I understood concepts that were just words on paper to me. I wanted to recreate this experience with others; I wanted them to feel as enlightened as I had. I wanted to share with everyone what I just had learned.

What I learned during this retreat was, I have privilege and the power to bring privilege to others who do not have the privileges I have. I should not feel guilty for having privilege but, I should be an ally for those who do not. I should advocate for those who do not have the privileges I have and I should educate others on the social issues we are faced with. I should learn about the root causes about these social issues so I can make an impact on the community I am trying to work with because social issues have different root causes in different areas. I should not be afraid to speak my truth and listen to others while they are speaking theirs

Throughout my training, I have been made aware that sometimes community service can be more harm than good. Sometimes the group that is going to do service has this idea that they are “saviors” and they view the community that they are working with as beneath them. Sometimes the community they are serving does not give the group a lot of work to do so the volunteers are more disruptive than helpful because the agency is babysitting the volunteers for the week. Or, the volunteers are not educated on the social issue and they end up not helping the community at all and participate in “voluntourism”.

With this trip to Phoenix I hope to do none of the above. I hope to bring a level of community awareness. I know with the class I am taking I will be knowledgeable of the social issue we are working with, but I will have to be cognizant of what the community wants.

When volunteering, the idea service learning is used simultaneously. I have recently been asked is it better to do service learning or to partake in learning service? I immediately thought service learning because that is what I have been programed to believe. However, when we look at service as an experience only the volunteers’ gain something from it could cause the savior complex or a power imbalance. With the idea of learning service we see service as an equal opportunity to gain something and to give something. On our trip I would like to be a steward of learning service.

I started off this reflection by stating I would like to grow as a result of this trip. Which is true, but growth is two way street. As you grow you are influencing those around you to do the same, you could be growing together, or their progress might have inspired a change within you. As we take this next step to Erase Indifference, we need to remember that we are inspiring growth in others and we are going to grow as people. We are not going to on this trip to cultivate our own life experiences, yet to enrich the lives of those around us.

– Sam Shepherd

A Whole Lot of ‘Me’ Talk

I have always had a deep interest in the study of genocide and the people affected by this crime. I chose my minor of Humanitarian affairs with the hope that I could expand my knowledge of genocide and my understanding of what it means and what it would entail to help those who have suffered through it. Through the classes I have already taken prior to this class I have been grateful to have learned much about the world and how its issue affect its people. However, this class and the opportunities it brings is my first chance to really delve into genocide as the focus of the class; and for that I hope to bring my enthusiasm and dedication to the subject matter.

I always struggle with questions such as “What do I hope to gain as a result of this course and trip?” I believe it is because I find it challenging to narrow down such a broad field of possibilities to one statement of intention. I know that I want to gain an understandng of genocide in the world, I want to return from the trip with some sense of reassurance that I made a difference, I want to better understand the Lost Boys and their lives. Me, me, me, me, me, that’s what I am hearing.   All of those hopes seem to come back to some sort of gain for me. This doesn’t sit right with me. I know I am privileged. I have a loving close-knit family and great friends. I have the opportunity to go to college. I have access to all the basic necessities of life and I have never been in a life threatening situation. To know all this about myself and to keep answering questions like the aforementioned with even more things for me truly concerns me.

Does this reflect a general tone towards service learning? Reflecting on all of these ideas makes me come to the conclusion that I hope to give all I can through this trip and course. I want to give my time, my energy, my ears, and my mind to the Lost Boys and other refugees I will meet. I hope that at the end of our trip I can say with confidence that I used all the time that was given to me to do everything I can do to help them. I hope that both my physical and mental energy is drained from exerting it all for them. I hope that my ears were open so that I can hear their stories and become a friend and confident that will repsect and emphazise with them. And I hope that my mind will have been open to all they have to tell me and that I can indeed learn something from their lives rather than just understand. Learn new things that inspire me and motivate me to become an advoacate once I have left this class. It is also my hope that I begin the trip with a mindset that is focused on the refugees. Any extra benefits to myself from the trip will be secondary.

The question of “What is good service learning?” is a question that I feel we will constantly be revisiting and adusting our understanding of. Prior to this weekend I had a general view of the concept that strayed more towards lumping it in with simply volunteering. However, after the spring retreat this weekend, both at the retreat and afterwards, I did a lot of thinking about how my understanding of service learning had changed. I now see the learning aspect much clearer then ever before. I now understand good service learning as multifacted because when on a trip you need to have a solid understanding of the issue and also the current place the people you are visiting are in. This would be visible in contacting an individual in charge and asking about what work can be done that will benefit the community no matter the realtive “size” of the endeavor. As volunteers we cannot go in thinking we understand exactly what the community needs. We must learn from them and adjust our bejaviors and intentions accordingly. Good service learning is also about being respectful of their culture and their wishes. If we were to simply go in with a rigid plan, we may end up making no meaningful change, or worse making a negative change. This can be avoided by being open to learn from the individuals we are serving.

This pre-reflection is just the first step in starting the process of learning that can eventually lead to action. I feel that the questions addressed here are vital to think about and return to many times throughout the semester. Because even writing this conclusion here I am still conflicted about my answers to both questions. I wonder if that is always how I will feel, or will my views change with every week of this course. I could continue writing about these ideas for many pages however, I believe I have reached the point where anything further would be redundant or counterproductive. These ideas are so hard to wrap my head around on one given day which is how I know that they will be the ones that I return to frequently throughout the semester.