Changing communities, changing themselves

Nine days, 58 students, 2,616 miles traveled and 3,191 service hours amount to an APPLES Service-Learning alternative spring break (ASB) that UNC students found more rewarding than any they could have imagined.

Carolina students Sima Sharara, Jacob Frumkin and Susie Choi each traveled to different places as part of APPLES ASB, a program of the Carolina Center for Public Service. The program offers rigorous, transformative service-learning experiences for students in an undergraduate course offered through the School of Public Health.

During spring break 2012, APPLES ASB went to five communities in three states. Students addressed pressing social concerns, including urban poverty, civil rights, disaster relief, and Latino and Native American issues. Students returned with stories of how their service not only made a difference in the communities they visited, but how that difference changed them.

“I was not sure what to expect from the alternative break experience,” explained Sharara, a global studies and public policy double major from Lebanon. She served in Newton Grove, N.C., to engage with the Latino community on health and education issues. “My main misconception was that the experience would focus on volunteering and manual labor for our community partners. However, the experience far exceeded my expectations. It truly embodied the term of ‘service-learning,’ as we learned so much about the issues.”

Sharara helped lead discussions about higher education with students at Clinton High School and Sampson Middle School. Her group created different presentations for each of the more than seven classes with whom they spoke. They performed scenes, talked in large groups and sometimes broke into small groups for discussion. They also received substance abuse training from certified counselors in El Futuro of Durham, N.C., which helped prepare them for their time with the younger students.

“During our visit to the high school, some of us shared personal narratives that we thought some Hispanic students could relate to. I shared my experience coming from a large, tight-knit family, and how difficult it was to leave Lebanon and come to America for college. I described the diversity at UNC and the embracing people that helped me make UNC my home away from home,” she said.

Frumkin, a mathematics major from Matthews, N.C., served in Birmingham, Ala. to understand the disparities in civil rights today and the pressing issues that still exist in our society. “I was of the belief that many of the greatest civil rights fights had been fought. However, this experience showed me that, contrary to my pre- and misconceptions, a plethora of injustice and inequality is perpetrated on millions of people each and every day.

“To win the overarching war being fought on behalf of civil rights, every community needs people like the leaders I met in Birmingham to step up and take a lead. We must mobilize our resources, equip our assets, and commit to ending the injustices that still exist in Birmingham, in Chapel Hill, and in the country and world that we are privileged to live in; ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”

Choi, a chemistry and mathematics double major from South Korea, served in Hyde County, where she learned about disaster relief and social change in the area. “After learning that sometimes direct service can be a Band-Aid© alleviating current pain, I became wary that disaster relief service would be exactly that: a type of service that only alleviates the problem until the next storm hits again, at which point, another group would volunteer to come in to do the same work we had previously done.

“During ASB, I realized new systems are being implemented to help reduce the effect a storm has on the county’s infrastructure. But another reason to get involved with disaster relief is to uncover the other social ‘problems’ a community may possess. For Hyde County, one issue is a lack of activities to engage youth with their community. If our group did not go into Hyde County with the intention of disaster relief, we would have never been aware of this issue, which we are now focusing on in our social change project [as a follow-up to the break experience].”

Countless Lessons

While the students believe they helped the communities, they say they also learned countless lessons.

“[APPLES] alternative spring break taught me that service does not end with the physical component. We should always strive to see more and really engage with the community and we should do the work that the community wants and needs us to do,” Choi said.

Sharara agreed, “This break really highlighted the importance of going to the community and hearing what the needs are directly from them. When trying to implement effective service, no one knows what the community needs more than its members.”

APPLES hosted five alternative spring break experiences offered through the course HBHE 610:

  • Latino Issues in Newton Grove, N.C. – students explored issues affecting migrant workers and Latino communities in North Carolina, including labor rights, pesticide use and access to healthcare.
  • Native Issues in Pembroke, N.C. – students worked with locals to better understand issues of federal recognition, rural poverty and Lumbee Indian culture.
  • Urban Poverty in Atlanta – participants learned about poverty and homelessness including access to healthcare and education.
  • Civil Rights in Birmingham, Ala. – students studied the access to a variety of civil rights.
  • Disaster Relief in Hyde County, N.C. – participants explored many aspects of disaster management including policy, access to aid and rebuilding efforts.

Learn more about APPLES alternative breaks.

Published March 15, 2012.