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Winter Service Trips Represent Deepening Commitment

CCES - South Africa Alt Break 2013

SIS sophomore Sarah Palazzolo (far right) and her group in South Africa with young women from the organization Sisters 4 Sisters.

While winter break is often a time for students to kick back and enjoy time with family, a number of AU students turn that convention on its head each year.

Thirty AU students and community members headed out around the globe to explore social justice issues with the university’s Alternative Breaks program, each student returning to campus with a new perspective and wealth of experience.

Organized through AU’s Center for Community Engagement & Service (CCE&S), Alt Breaks send students out into domestic and international communities thrice yearly to investigate a host of social justice topics. It’s a tradition of service learning at AU dating back fifteen years.

But if you ask CCE&S’s assistant director of Global Learning & Leadership Shoshanna Sumka what’s new about these recent winter trips, she’ll tell you, “Nothing,” and that’s a good thing.

“What is really remarkable about these three winter trips in particular is that we’ve been going there for years. So, they’re not new,” she explains. “We’re building these really deep and long-lasted community partnerships, and that’s what exciting.”

In fact, the three ten-day trips to Haiti, South Africa, and Guatemala represent long-term relationships with community partners reaching back three, seven, and eight years respectively.

EXPLORE: Get to know AU’s Alternative Breaks program.

School of International Service sophomore Sarah Palazzolo co-led a group of ten to Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa. Her experience as a participant on last year’s trip inspired her to introduce others to local women’s empowerment groups including Sisters 4 Sisters and Grandmothers Against Poverty & AIDS.

“It was amazing because I had already met and started getting to know some of the women and girls there,” she says. “It was really awesome to see [them] and see how they’ve grown and [how] the organization is developing.”

School of Public Affairs senior Patrice Noel had a similar experience in Haiti, going from participant last spring to leader this year. People there remembered her name, and one young student even still carried a picture of last year’s group with him.

Half Haitian herself, Noel was glad to get another glimpse into Haitian life, and she’s grateful for the new skills she can take into the world after graduation.

“It’s taught me so much as far as planning, budgeting, having to communicate with partner organizations, working with a co-leader, and being in charge of six or seven students in a foreign country is not easy,” she says. “Those experiences alone have prepared me for life. It’s impossible for me to forget these experiences.”

LEARN MORE: Read about AU and the Haiti Compact.

AU’s Alt Breaks differ from standard service trips in that they focus on witness and learning rather than groups bringing their own ideas and approaches to briefly serving a community.

“We’re just there to learn from what people are doing and support wherever they ask us to,” Palazzolo explains. “It’s definitely a humble approach to development that I think is really important.”

For the trip to Guatemala, students studied the country’s history of indigenous genocide before witnessing evidence of mass graves and meeting with survivors on the ground.

Sumka sees the trips as a natural extension of AU’s engagement-based education, often addressing issues ranging from human rights and environmental sustainability to culture, language, and international development.

“There are so many academic areas that the students are thinking about and grappling with these issues,” she says, “but being able to meet community activists and leaders who are living everyday these struggles, the AU students are able to get a deeper understanding of what’s going on and then through that see their own role in the world.”

And students’ engagement with this understanding doesn’t stop when they return to campus. In fact, Noel now interns with the US office of the Association of Peasants of Fondwa, and Palazzolo’s South Africa group plans to bring a photo exhibit to campus from the women they worked with.

Looking back on her trips south, Palazzolo says she’ll always remember the African concept of ubuntu. It’s a message AU sends with its students serving around the world each year.

“The ethos is one of common human dignity, not helping out of obligation…I’m not doing this because I want to add this to my resume or help someone who can’t help themselves. It’s because I can’t exist as a human in the world if there’s injustice and suffering in the world,” she says. “I think that’s the most important thing that Alt Break teaches.”