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Students celebrate MLK with day of serving and learning

  • Serving and learning in honor of MLK
    Serving and learning in honor of MLK  About two dozen William & Mary students will travel to Petersburg Jan. 16 and 17 to learn about civil rights and to engage in service projects like the one pictured here. On Jan. 20, a cross-campus march and Martin Luther King commemoration program will be held, featuring Michael Eric Dyson who was named by Ebony Magazine as one of the 100 most influential black Americans.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The metal roof groaned its disapproval as William & Mary students armed with crowbars and hammers forced it from its place atop the shed. Below, other students pulled aged plywood from the structure's frame and tossed its splintered remains loudly into a dumpster.

The students could have spent that morning - one of the last of their winter break - wearing pajamas and lounging around their houses. Instead, they opted to spend Martin Luther King Day honoring the holiday's namesake by serving and learning in the Petersburg, Va., area.

"It's Martin Luther King Day, and he always encouraged everyone to serve the community and humanity, so when this opportunity was provided, we decided to come," said Courtnie Gore ‘12.


Approximately 45 students partnered with non-profit organizations Habitat for Humanity, ElderHomes and Pathways during the day of service, assisting with home-building projects, tree planting, and shower installation.

But the students did more work than what was visible at the end of the day. They also made an effort to learn more about King and the social justice issues involved in the civil rights movement.

Some of the students travelled to Petersburg on Sunday to do a day of "education for justice," said Melody Porter, assistant director of William & Mary's Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship. The group attended a church service, where they listened to a sermon on justice and the civil rights movement today. Later, they went on a tour and engaged in a discussion about King and his movement.

Those who drove up on Monday read articles regarding the planning behind the movement, and, on Monday afternoon, saw a performance about civil rights in Petersburg at the Sycamore Rouge theater.

Rosh Patel ‘08, VISTA for Petersburg Projects in the Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship, said he hopes that the day helped students really think about the issues of civil rights and social justice.

"I think that a lot of Martin Luther King's ideals are really tough issues that we still don't have answers for and I think working alongside other students who are just as interested in social justice will hopefully be motivating for students to continue to working on projects like these or expanding the way they apply their education to their ideals," he said.

Branching out

The educational component of the trip -- involving learning, discussion and reflection -- is something that the Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship has sought to incorporate into all of its service trips.

"It's bringing together the scholarship piece and the intellectual understanding and figuring out how the two mesh and get stronger by being together," said Porter.

The trip was sponsored by both the Students' Petersburg Initiative for Community Engagement (SPICE) and the Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship's Branch Out program. Branch Out, which was established after the OCES was created last year, offers students local, regional and international service-learning opportunities.

Mallory Johnson '10, one of the student directors of Branch Out and a co-founder of SPICE, said that Branch Out is the combination of three old programs: the community service leaders' weekend trips, spring break service experiences and international service experiences.

"We kind of realized that a lot of what we were doing in terms of issue education and in terms of reflection and training for participants and site leaders were all really parallel to each other and really interconnected, so we decide to have a program that was an umbrella for all three," she said.

The new program has allowed the Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship to pool resources and offer more regional trips and leadership opportunities to students.

With six regional trips now available to students each semester, including the one to Petersburg, it is easier for more students to get an introduction to service without worrying about the cost that comes with international trips, Johnson said.

The increased number of trips also means that the students are able to look into new issue topic areas, including gang violence prevention and natural resource preservation.

"It's been a broader spectrum we've been able to look at, which is nice because that way we can appeal to more students' interests," said Johnson.

Even with all the options that are now available, Johnson said that the trip to Petersburg over Martin Luther King Day weekend is her favorite of the year.
"It offers a learning lab for us to apply everything from economics to sociology to government because they're struggling with a lot of those factors," she said. "At the same time, it has such a strong potential for growth and development with all the new initiatives that the city is working on so there's all these outlets for students to come in and help out on a long-term, sustainable basis."

Celebrating the legacy

On Jan. 21, William & Mary will again offer its community a chance to celebrate and learn about the King and his efforts.

At 6 p.m., the Kappa Pi Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and the William & Mary NAACP will hold a march, starting at the Wren Portico.

At 7 p.m., the Center for Student Diversity will hold its annual commemoration of King's birthday. The keynote speaker for the program, which will be held in the Sadler Center, will be Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies and Chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University.

For those students who participated in the Petersburg this year, the celebration of King's life and impact has already begun.

 "(I went) to experience the selflessness, just like Martin Luther King did," said Gore. "I know I'm not on his level at all, but it's a start, just to live the legacy."