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Behind Closed Doors: Not Just For Housing Anymore

Civic Engagement
April 14, 2016 Harriett Steinbach Assistant Director for Service Learning

Illinois State University Alternative Breaks began in 2000 with a single spring break trip and since that time, has grown to include a large spring break program, winter break, summer break, and weekend trips. ISU won Break Away’s Program of the Year award in 2012. Each year, the program has over 330 participants completing more than 6,000 service hours. We serve both domestic and international communities and have over 60 student leaders that execute our trips.

We take our student leader training seriously and for several years have used a nine part training curriculum to prepare the student leaders.  Thanks to our Trip Leader exit interviews in 2013, we discovered a gap in our training. Students overall felt they had the knowledge to execute the trips but when faced with difficult situations, froze up and didn’t know how to react. We had given them all the information but they hadn’t practiced it.  Staff members in the Leadership and Community Connections unit put their heads together and went back to the university housing roots—what if we created a Behind Closed Doors (BCD) training simulation for our student leaders? If anyone has served as an RA, you remember that feeling of partaking in your first BCD. It was intense and stressful but ultimately, you learned a lot! We thought we could recreate this idea and use actual situations that happened on past Alternative Breaks.

A group of staff and graduate assistants who had both experience in housing and alternative breaks sat down to create scenarios. We included items such as:

  • Dealing with an overtalkative participant during reflection
  • Finding alcohol/drugs on trip
  • Handling a difficult trip advisor
  • Handling an overly emotional participant
  • Finding out there’s a problem with your service/housing site
  • Confronting a fellow student leader
  • Communication barriers (for our international trips)
  • Handling a bias incident

Our structure is simple. We have returning student leaders along with staff and graduate assistants act as the actors and facilitators. All new trip leaders must complete each scenario. We do our best to keep them in their team co-leader pair so that they can work through situations with another person. The participants receive some information before entering a room and then react to the situation they encounter. Once the “scene” is done, the actors lead the participants in a conversation. What went well? What didn’t? Each scenario has a set of questions to be processed before moving on to the next scene.

This activity can take anywhere between one to two hours depending on the number of students you have and the number of actors you have.

Behind Closed Doors was implemented for the first time for our winter 2013-2014 trips. During the exit interview process for student leaders, many mentioned how helpful they found the exercise. They stated that it gave them confidence and were glad they got the chance to “mess up” before being on the trip. Every year, we tweak situations based on any new situation that has been encountered. We added in the bias incident for the 2015-2016 schoolyear since we are placing a greater emphasis on inclusion. If you would like a copy of our facilitation guide, don’t hesitate to reach out to Annie Weaver at amweave@ilstu.edu