Some will rather choose to spend a week in Mexico, Belize or Guatemala. Now this may sound like a hot spot for spring break, but to the kids that travel with Temple community service, the trips mean more than good memories and legal alcohol.
Monica Hankins-Padilla, assistant director of community relations, said the experience of a service immersion trip consists of learning about the culture and the people, as well as being able to bring it back to your own community. Students travel to places like Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and even South Dakota during their breaks in order to plunge themselves into a new community.
“I know it’s hard work,” she said. “It’s not a vacation. Four hours of manual labor is four hours of manual labor, especially if you put your back into it.”
Hankins-Padilla not only supervises, but also participates in Temple’s service immersion trips. Even from her office in the Community Education Center, she is committed to seeing that the needs of communities and students are met.
Junior anthropology major Gaja Stirbys has been a big participant in community service at Temple and has joined a service trip every year. She said she believes that communication is essential so the neighborhood can be included, too. She insisted that students are there to work with the community, for the community.
“We’re not coming with a solution and free T-shirts,” she said.
Despite the great impact that immersion trips have on the students and the communities they visit, many question the importance of doing service abroad, as opposed to a closer place in need, like North Philadelphia. However, students that have experienced these trips feel there is significance in learning in another place and bringing the knowledge back home.
“When you volunteer abroad, you have the opportunity to learn in a different context,” Stirbys said. “You’re not learning through a book or magazine or TV screen. You have to think about it. At home, you can turn off the TV. It makes you realize how large the world is and how varied the human experience is.”
It can also be argued that these foreign places are much different than Temple’s neighborhood. Though in some cases there may be not much of a difference at all.
“[While abroad], you may visit a place just like North Philly,” Hankins-Padilla said.
Hankins-Padilla said while abroad, these trips might promote students to develop leadership skills.
“They’re able to carry that momentum into everyday life,” she said.
Senior film major Scott Blanding served as a student leader for this year’s trip to Belize during winter break. He said that there is a lot of value in going outside the country during college.
“It’s a shaping experience,” he said. “Isolate yourself from your normal routine in the states to understand what life is like for people in other places.”
Blanding said he believes that the trips expose students to something bigger than their own self-interests, and that it will help them understand the importance and value in service.
Stirbys admitted that her experiences in community service, abroad and domestically, have even changed the way she walks.
“When I walk down the street, if I pull out the memories from my trips, it changes how I walk,” she said. “It’s so easy to be prideful.”
However, Hankins-Padilla said that community service is not cut out for everyone. She explained the some do not care, some do not have time and some do not know how to get involved. Then again, some may just be afraid of stepping into a foreign place.
“Language barriers are only as big as you make them,” she said. “Open yourself up and step out of your comfort zone. Let yourself experience it.”
Stirbys noticed some major misconceptions concerning volunteers and what they do. For example, people might just think volunteer work is for “tree-hugging, granola-crunching, patchouli-smelling hippies.”
“Community service is not constricted to university students going down to some center to assuage their guilt,” she said. “It can be about making art, writing a play [or] making music together.”
Even though a studious semester abroad can make a big impression on a young adult’s life, most volunteers here would agree that community service could be equally life changing.
“To open up someone’s eyes, to see the world through someone else’s life, that’s an empowering thing,” Hankins-Padilla said. “Helping others is profound.”