The students at table 13 lean over a blank, white poster board and with green, yellow and black markers fill the edges of the sheet with the lessons they learned in places as close as Baltimore and Chesterfield and as far as Nicaragua and Honduras.
Although the topics they jot down -- sustainability, access to educational resources, HIV/AIDS education, accessibility for people with disabilities – seem, at first, as disparate as the places the students had travelled to, the connections become clear when the group begins sharing stories.
At tables throughout the Tidewater rooms in the Sadler Center on March 24, similar connections were made as this year’s participants in the College’s Branch Out Alternative Break trips reunited to discuss what they had learned and how they can continue to make a difference.
Approximately 130 students as well as a few faculty and staff members attended the reorientation dinner, which is hosted annually by the Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship. All of the participants in the year’s Branch Out alternative break trips – which include regional, national and international destinations – were invited to take part in the event.
Although the students had a chance to warmly reunite with their fellow trip members before the start of the dinner, they were randomly assigned to different tables for the evening, so that each table would include representatives from a variety of trips.
The evening began with welcoming remarks by Melody Porter, associate director of OCES, who noted that Branch Out trips are not just trips.
“We’re alternative breaks because we may travel for a weekend, or a week, or a month, but we take a short time of travel and stretch it into a lifetime of active citizenship,” she said.
Porter encouraged each of the students that night to “levitate above the issues” they had delved into on their respective trips.
“We’re going to talk about not just those issues and not just what you did, but then we’re going to find the connections between them,” she said, adding that by the end of the night, the students would make commitments about what they’re going to do moving forward.
Before the students began discussions at their tables, they were asked to participate in a game of “four corners.” Four posters, each bearing the word “agree,” “disagree,” “strongly agree” or “strongly disagree,” were placed in the four corners of the room, and the participants were asked to stand next to each poster in response to statements that were read on issues ranging from healthcare to education. At times, almost the entire group would stand next to one poster, and, at others, the participants were divided nearly evenly across the room. At the end of the game, the participants were asked if, as a result of their trip experience, they had stood next to an opinion that was different than where they would have stood before. Dozens of hands reached into the air in response.
As the students ate dinner, they discussed their trips and wrote on the poster boards, drawing connections between the issues that they had confronted. Later, six students went to the front of the room to share their experiences with the entire crowd of participants.
Michael Magaling ’13 discussed the trip he went on to Baltimore, Md., confronting the issues of hunger and homelessness.
Magaling said he had never been on a service trip before and only signed up because his friends were doing it. However, it ended up being a life-changing experience.
“One of the biggest things for me was having my perceptions change,” he said, adding that he was surprised to see how many homeless children there are.
“That for me was big because I didn’t expect that to be the face of homelessness,” he said.
Before the trip, Magaling had planned on going into medicine, but now, he wants to become a social worker. He changed his major to sociology the day of the dinner.
“Going through this trip, I believe I am now a more considerate and caring person and I really do care about other people’s situations,” he said. “And now that the trip is over, I’m using this newfound knowledge to steer me toward a new career path.”
Though not everyone will end up switching careers as a result of Branch Out trips, the directors of the program do hope to see a continuation of issue awareness and community engagement in the lives of the trips’ participants. At the end of the dinner, the participants were asked to write down how they planned on continuing to work on their trips’ issues.
Meagan Taylor ’11, a Branch Out regional co-director, said the dinner is “like an action-planning session.”
“What we’re hoping is that everyone will come out of this dinner reminded of everything they learned on this trip, but also with an action plan that they’re going to take and do something about these issues that they’ve learned about,” she said.
Porter said she hopes the trips are “catalysts for a lifetime of action.”
“They change the way we see the world, and they spur us to act for good in the many different aspects of our lives,” she said.
In Magaling, that change is apparent.
“It’s really setting the basis for my future,” he said. “I’m really excited about what’s to come, and I have this trip to thank for that.”