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Sophomore Retreat: A Labor of Love

Working Hard

Sophomores Anthony Miller (right) and Nathan Bronstein (left) weed tomato plants on the farm.

This September, the sophomore class of the SPA Leadership program traded their busy DC lifestyles for a weekend of picking green beans in the dirt, weeding through thorny plants, and stocking shelves – all a part of their volunteer project with Fauquier Community Food Bank.

The Class of 2012 discarded the notions of “typical” leadership activities as they set off for Virginia for a weekend retreat and character-building manual labor. The plan? Harvest food from a local farm that would then be used at the food bank in the same town. The purpose? Examining new outlets for leadership through community service and team building.

As this year’s retreat began on the evening of September 11th, the sophomore leadership class took the opportunity to remember 9/11 as they engaged in a discussion of the event’s impact on them, not only as citizens, but as future leaders. “We all recognize that we’re among the last generation to personally remember 9/11, and we all grew up with the War in Iraq,” said sophomore Melissa Chang. “Because this event is so embedded in our lives, I think it’s inevitable that we consider its implications for the future." In the midst of a fun weekend, an appropriately somber tone was set as students eagerly engaged in discussion about their memories and experiences.

The next morning, as students stumbled out of their cabins, weary and bleary-eyed, excitement replaced the formerly serious mood. After splashing away the sleep from their eyes and downing a hearty breakfast, the sophomores set off on the hour long drive to Fauquier County Community Action Farm. They picked vegetables. They moved rocks. They stocked shelves. All the while, they remained inspired and motivated. They knew that the fruits of their labor, literally, would be supporting the local food bank and feeding the very community where they spent the weekend. As sophomore Olivia Stitilis explains, “It was a truly memorable experience, definitely something different from my typical weekend.”

However, the work itself took a backseat to the conversation and team-building that developed from such hard labor. The sophomore class was already extraordinarily close after a year of working together and planning issue group projects. They had gone through the slightly awkward getting-to-know-you experience during their own freshman year retreat, and now were completely at ease with each other. Thus, the sophomore retreat was better described as a weekend gathering of friends to do community service. “It rekindled the connections that started last year and built upon them,” noted Phil Cardarella.

Jennifer Jones agreed, explaining that the sophomore retreat differed dramatically from the freshman retreat, yet there was still no lack of rewarding experiences. It was “very different, a lot less academic and more action-oriented.” On this unique departure from the classroom, the sophomore leaders embraced more hands-on lessons on the importance of local sustainability and community agriculture.

After a long day of difficult labor, the students left the farm and returned to the campsite for a night of card games, Frisbee playing, and eating together. Even such low-key activities provided an opportune atmosphere for meaningful conversations and bonding. Josh Dubensky said the “free time spent at the cabin with other friends in leadership” was his favorite memory of the retreat; many other sophomores agreed that the down-time of the retreat was the most significant experience of the weekend as they “got to see new sides to old faces,” said Anthony Miller.

Sunday morning, the retreat drew to a close, and the group headed back to American University’s campus. Despite the dirt and exhaustion of the weekend and their mountains of homework awaiting them, they were happy. Prior to the retreat, most could call their fellow “Spaleaders” classmates and even teammates, but the weekend truly reinforced their friendships, strengthening their ties even more before the big school year ahead.

In the classroom, the sophomores won’t only think of political leaders anymore. This weekend brought a smaller lens to the vision of leadership. No longer will their idea of leadership always be in the realm of politics, but it will include the community leaders that are donating their lives to save their community.