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Importance of Pre-Service Education in Alternative Breaks- A Connected-Course Approach

Student Success LEAD Initiative
May 31, 2018 Chelsea Redger-Marquardt Wichita State University

Alternative Breaks are one form of service-learning that has always been a passion area personally.  The importance of pre- and post-trip learning is of specific interest and thus the creation of a curricular connected course has become a part of my practice.  So today, I would love to start a discussion as to how we as co-educators with our community ready and prepare our students prior to departing for an alternative break experience?  Furthermore, how do we facilitate learning post the immersive service experience? Finally, what is our responsibility as instructors, advisors, trip leaders, or trainers of trip leaders in ensuring that this important development of civic agency is occurring?

At Wichita State University, we have just completed our third spring semester course offering of a connected-course with each of our alternative spring break (ASB) program.  We are a young program and offer a limited number of trips but the importance of sending well informed and prepared students has been a goal of this program during its foundational creation.  The course is a three-credit hour, three hundred level course that carries an Issues and Perspectives credential which is part of our general education requirements. It meets once per week for two hours with the thought that the remaining time is accounted for during the week of service occurring during spring break. 

Structurally, the course is aided by the work of Break Away and the Eight Components of A Quality Alternative Break.  Each week the course explores social issues, current events or policy connected to the focus of their ASB trip.  The course also challenges students to explore their personal privilege, learn about topical areas that they might not be accustomed to, and understand a community that might not be familiar to them.  The course is experiential, utilizes reflective blogging, photo voice, lively deliberative dialogues, and group work. 

Each spring break student’s share that they felt better prepared for their trip as a result of participating in the class prior to travel.  I should disclose that I am currently a third year doctoral student and my dissertation research has a goal of understanding through a qualitative design students’ perceptions of their learning throughout the entire semester connected-course- pre- trip, on-trip, and post-trip.  However, my question to the community today is- how is your campus ensuring preparation prior to service is occurring?  What is our responsibility as professional staff or faculty in this, or do we have a responsibility? Because I think we do.  I think it is vitally important that we are doing our best work to prepare a student that is well intention but beyond their scope prior to immersive service.  I think this requires more than just a few pre-trip meetings and I am genuinely interested to know what co-curricular and curricular practices other campuses are finding useful or not so useful in this work. 

Sometimes I think the words of our students are the most helpful in sharing the learning that can occur.  With permission, I am going to share a blog excerpt from one of this past spring’s connected-course student participant’s final blog post.

This past semester in class has taught me things I never would have been taught in any other class. The class itself did an amazing job to provide us with content that was important to know but also activities that were interactive and pushed people to think. I swear I had never sat there and taught about life and all its difficulties the way this class pushed me to. I remember being introduced to these issues in the beginning of the semester and learning about some of the reasons why they were started. Since I went into this class blinded, everything seemed so surprising to me. Even the things that seemed to be obvious had me in shock. I always placed a negative connotation on the homeless because of the way the media portrays them and how people talk about them. I was told that these people chose to be unemployed and were lazy for not looking for a job. I quickly learned that the system in which we live forces people to be homeless sometimes. Or that a natural disaster can strike out of nowhere causing an entire city to be without shelter. Or that there could be domestic violence in a household and being homeless would be a better option than killed. So many reasons are behind homeless that I wouldn’t have learned about were it not for this class.

I couldn’t be more grateful for the preparation we had in order to go on the trip. I believe that this class equipped us to be ready for most things that came our way. Especially when it came to learning about personal privilege. I know so many people who don’t think privilege is a thing. During our privilege activity, I realized how even I as a female minority am privileged in at least one aspect. I learned that it takes more than just recognizing personal privileges. That’s only the first step. The way to make a change is to use our personal privileges to help those who don’t share the same privileges. If I were to pick the number one lesson that has stuck with me from the entire trip, it would be that. It’s one that I’ve already created into a habit. I came back to Wichita eager to make sure that my personal privileges were shared with those who don’t have them. I’m a firm believer that doing so will somehow make those with privileges that I don’t have, help me or my loved ones whenever we’re in need.

While this is one example and a positive example of the connected-course at Wichita State University, I hope it can illustrate my belief that everything else that goes into an Alternative Break experience has the potential to create intentional learning with eh aim of increasing civic agency in meaningful ways.  Thanks for your work and contributions to civic learning and the NASPA LEAD community.