March 03, 2011

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Janice Butler, director of the Office of Civic Engagement

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Janice Butler, director of the Office of Civic Engagement, talks about alternative spring break experiences and service-learning at Bucknell University.

Q: College students today have a wide range of opportunities that reach beyond the traditional sun-bathing and relaxation associated with spring break. When did the shift to more service-oriented trips begin and what prompted the change?

A: As part of the service-learning movement during the past 20 years, we've seen in higher education an effort to give students more experiences where they are immersed in a culture and able to think about ways that they can use their education to benefit others. I think the growth of alternative spring break experiences is partly related to that movement. Many students come here having had service experiences with their church group or synagogue in high school. It is something that many students are hungry for, and they are looking for opportunities to contribute.

The piece that higher education brings to this is tying the service to educational experiences so that students are having the opportunity to critically think about what they are doing, what they are observing, why it's necessary and how their academic experience can inform or better serve the public good.

At Bucknell, our first big effort with service-learning was the Bucknell Brigade to Nicaragua, which took place in the spring semester of 1999 following Hurricane Mitch. There had been Habitat for Humanity trips previously, and small student organizations had service trips, but I think it is more a part of the millennial generation to be looking for these types of experiences. Today, we have quite a variety of trips available to students for both experiential learning and to provide community outreach and service to different kinds of populations.

Q: What are some of the trips available to students at Bucknell, and how many students typically participate in alternative spring break?

A: Here at Bucknell, we have two kinds of alternative break opportunities. One type is set up and sponsored by the university with some subsidies available to participants, and the other type is set up by student organizations. The Katrina Recovery trip to New Orleans, the Bucknell Brigade to Nicaragua and the Civil Rights Trip to Memphis are short-term alternative breaks. We also have summer study involving service, such as Bucknell in Northern Ireland and Bucknell in Nicaragua, where students can earn credit for studying and participating in service in these settings.

The student organizations also organize trips. Habitat for Humanity is planning a trip to build houses in North Carolina this year. Advancing Communities: Educating and Serving (ACES) plans a trip to help poor communities in the Dominican Republic, and Campus Ministry is also running a service trip to Appalachia. If you added all those trips together, we would probably have about 100 to 150 students participating just over spring break.

Q: Students often are asked to conduct their own fundraising and, in the case of the Bucknell Brigade to Nicaragua, to complete a mini-curriculum to learn more about the history, economy, politics and culture of the place they will travel. How does this preparation enhance their service-learning experiences?

A: The Katrina Recovery Team and the Bucknell Brigade each have four-week mini-curriculum sessions that are required of the participants, and the veterans of these trips have said that the preparation is really valuable. It's never the same as when they actually get there, but they feel they have some more knowledge and are able to ask some informed questions when they're interacting with residents or guest speakers on the trips. Those mini-curriculum sessions help students understand the complex issues of poverty, natural disasters, community development and recovery and give them a much richer experience.

On these alternative break trips, we're asking our students to be active citizens. They go and have an experience in a different culture and in a different setting. They can come back as ambassadors and share their stories, talk about what they learned and show photos of what it is like there. This really has a ripple effect, because they are educating others through their own experience.

Our students often do fundraising to cover the cost of their trips, but we have a lot of students who receive subsidies as well. On the Katrina and Brigade trips, we've never turned anyone away because they couldn't afford to pay. 

Q: Participants often describe the Bucknell Brigade in particular as "transformative." Many students have been inspired to alter their career paths and become more active citizens after visiting Nicaragua. How does the Office of Civic Engagement ensure that participants carry the lessons forth, beyond spring break?

A: From that very first trip on the Bucknell Brigade when I was a participant, I saw how powerful that emersion was for faculty and staff and students to come and experience and process these issues together. And every year since then, we have asked the students to reflect on what the experience has meant. We do an evaluation, and we ask them to do public presentations and debriefings with future participants when they come back. That helps to solidify their experiences and encourages them to share the knowledge that they've gained. It also helps them feel part of a legacy — that this is something that's ongoing at Bucknell - and they were able to participate in making a difference in the lives of others.

Associate Professor of Management Tammy Hiller a few years ago did some research with Katrina Recovery Team veterans, and some of what she found was that their attitudes about themselves and about others had been affected by that experience. So many of the participants said that they had more positive attitudes towards the Hurricane Katrina victims, towards the Bucknell faculty and staff and towards other Bucknell students.

And they also were engaging in service after they returned. After returning from their first trip to help with Katrina recovery work, over 73 percent of the student participants volunteered their time to work with people in need, unrelated to Katrina recovery issues, and 92 percent got involved in Katrina recovery education and political action and/or fundraising. So it really does have kind of a stimulating effect in terms of helping jumpstart some students' activism.

Students who have participated in the Brigade have gone on to join the Peace Corps and decided to enter areas like public health, international relations or conflict resolution following this experience. We have a number of people who knew they wanted to be doctors and used their experiences to get some hands-on learning in the health clinic. We have others who were always interested in international relations and have gone on to Foreign Service careers.

One of the impacts of participating in the trips is that students really get exposed to people who are different from them and learn to work with others who are different from them.

New editions of "Ask the Experts" appear on the Bucknell website on most Thursdays during the fall and spring semesters and on occasion throughout the summer. If you have ideas for future topics or are a faculty or staff member who would like to participate, please contact Sam Alcorn.

To learn more about faculty and staff experts who can speak on a variety of news topics, visit Bucknell's searchable Experts Guide.

Contact: Division of Communications