National Volunteer Week is here and last week I had the pleasure of participating in AB (Alternative Breaks) Reunion at the University of Maryland, College Park. The University of Maryland Alternative Breaks program engages students in short-term service-learning experiences that address social issues such as disaster relief, environmental restoration, HIV/AIDS, education, homelessness, healthcare, poverty, and immigration. AB’s primary goal is to educate participants about the underlying causes of these issues, while also making an immediate difference in the communities where the trips take place.
The reunion event sought to remind participants that their service experiences were just the beginning of their journey in social change, rather than an ending, and the structure of the program served to offer the opportunity for students to reflect on their experiences with the program and inspire the participants to consider how they can leverage their experience to further activate their social citizenship.
I found the words of an EL (Experience Leader) named Chao particularly impactful, as he spoke about the impact of his experience as he plans for his future, completing medical school applications and interviews. He said his trip added to the “holistic perspective I have on people from different walks of life to give compassionate care” and informed the “values I will uphold as a physician”.
I participated in an AB trip at the University of Maryland in 2007, on a trip to the Florida Keys, focused on environmental issues, particularly on invasive plant removal with The Nature Conservancy. As an alumni at the AB Reunion event, I had the opportunity to share with recent participants about how my trip impacted me and contributed to a continued commitment to service that I still hold as a volunteer today, and in my work at Independent Sector and with Upswell.
I was struck by how much was the same about the students and the AB experience, as well as what had changed.
What was the same? The enthusiasm of students for the experiences they had and a commitment to continuing to be engaged on these issues. I was reminded of just how much students have on their plate, yet they are still willing to take on greater leadership. The relationships that students developed from their participation was still clear. I too am still friends with fellow AB-ers I met on my trip 12 years ago! And it was still evident that students learned so much from the nonprofits they connected with or served with during their trips.
What was different? I noticed more focus on thinking critically about service – making sure that service is genuinely helping the community, not belittling those we are trying to help, and similar considerations. In fact, one of the events taking place on campus as part of “Activation April”, a month full of events and activities designed to help students translate their passions into real-world actions, concerned tackling more uncomfortable questions around the ethics of service.
There were more concrete action steps for students on the many ways they can be engaged citizens, including advocacy, political participation, philanthropy, activism, and more. More students seemed to be thinking about actively living their values every day, in ways large and small. One small thing I noticed was how many students were using reusable water bottles. It was probably three times as many as when I was a student at UMD.
Thank you to the students I met for their enthusiasm for turning their passion into action and shout-out to volunteers everywhere during National Volunteer Week!