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Alumni serve as role models for students on alternative break trips

  • Helping hands
    Helping hands  Students help prepare meals at D.C. Central Kitchen as part of an alternative break trip with community partner and W&M alumna Katherine Eklund '11.  Courtesy photo
  • Community organizers
    Community organizers  Students on an alternative break trip to Danville, Va., pose for a photo with W&M alumnus and community partner Nik Belanger '10 (right). The students are spending the week working with Virginia Organizing.  Courtesy photo
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Meghan Dunne '09 knows what it is like to spend spring break away from home, learning about new communities and working on social justice issues. She was one of the first students to participate in William & Mary’s inaugural spring break service trips in 2006, and she continued being involved with the trips throughout her college career.

Now, Dunne is one of three alumni serving as community partners for this year’s Branch Out alternative break trips.

“I worked very, very closely with the program, so I feel very lucky that, as an alumni, I am able to stay involved with the work that I’m doing now,” said Dunne.

Approximately 100 William & Mary students are participating in the nine Branch Out alternative break trips this week in locations ranging from South Carolina to Pennsylvania.

Dunne, now a kindergarten teacher at Anne Beers Elementary School in Washington D.C., is acting as the community partner for a trip titled “Bridging the Achievement Gap: Early Childhood Education in Urban Public Schools.” The participating students are working with elementary school children, hosting a literacy night, visiting a charter school and learning about education inequality. This is the third year that a group from William & Mary has worked with Dunne and the school on spring break.

Role models

Nik Belanger '10, the Southside community organizer for Virginia Organizing, is working with students in Danville, Va., on a trip titled “GO: Grassroots Organizing to Fight Injustice.” The trip, now in its second year, offers students a chance to learn about grassroots organizing by meeting with community leaders and knocking on doors to garner community input and support for causes that directly impact them.

Katherine Eklund '11, executive and research assistant for the D.C. Central Kitchen, is working with students on a new trip titled, “Serving Social Justice: Exploring the Intersections of Hunger, Homelessness, and Former Incarceration in Washington, D.C.” Students are helping the non-profit with its daily meal preparation and street outreach program. They are also meeting with the staff and community partners of D.C. Central Kitchen.

Melody Porter, associate director of the Office of Community Engagement, said that having alumni involved in the trips fits into OCE’s vision that “students will prioritize working within and understanding community in a lifelong pursuit of social justice.”

“These are people who have figured out how to be part of their communities and to work for social justice there,” said Porter.

The alumni are familiar with OCE’s service philosophy and can create trips that emphasize real community impact. Additionally, the alumni and students can easily relate to one another, “so it just takes role modeling to a whole new level in terms of how it can look to be an active citizen in the community after graduation,” Porter said.

When they were students

All three of the alumni working with this year’s alternative break trips were themselves highly involved in service as undergraduates at William & Mary.

Dunne, who received a President’s Awards for Service to the Community in 2008, was a Sharpe Scholar and a student director for the university's Branch Out alternative breaks program. Eklund, too, was a student director for Branch Out program, and she was also very involved with the William & Mary Campus Kitchen. Belanger, who received the 2010 Monroe Prize in Civic Leadership, helped lead the W&M chapters of International Justice Mission and Virginia Organizing.

The alumni credit their experiences in service at the College with leading them to their current careers.

Dunne said that she had once considered doing education policy research work for a think tank, but the process of reflection that she learned through Branch Out pointed her toward a different path.

“It was through looking at my day-to-day experiences that I realized what I actually found meaning in was my interaction with the community and actually working on the ground level with this issue,” she said.

For Belanger, it was a William & Mary alumnus who pointed him toward Virginia Organizing where he experienced “a big shift in thinking,” he said, “to think that, oh, there are ways that we can work on local issues that matter in our own communities.”

Eklund, too, acknowledged the influence of William & Mary alumni on her current work.

“I was always really inspired by the William & Mary alumni and the incredible things that people are doing, even right after college.”

Passing it on

Now in that alumni role, Eklund hopes to do the same for the students she is working with this week.

“I hope that this is an opportunity for them to get out of the William & Mary bubble and really take a look at a lot of these issues that they may be studying or things that they might be thinking about but in a really practical, hands-on, real-world experience,” she said.

Belanger hopes that the students he is working with can take what they’ve learned and apply it to their lives.

“I think the lessons of community organizing can apply to anything you do, if you are working to make your community better,” he said.

Although Belanger joked about each group of students making him feel progressively older, he said that working with them gives him a good idea of where the College is headed and how students’ interests are evolving. He is also happy to be able to work with students who are asking some of the same questions that he did as a student and help guide them toward their own “light bulb” moments.

“It’s kind of cool to think that I might be a part of helping spark that for someone else from William & Mary,” he said.

Although some may see the students’ passion to make a difference as naive, Dunne said that their excitement is refreshing.

“It’s a nice reminder to me that I have that opportunity every day,” she said.