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ISSUE 120 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 3/16/2007

Globetrotters stay connected with service

By Miriam Samuelson
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 16, 2007

At a college that boasts an education grounded in faith and a global perspective, many students take part in abroad programs that involve service in some way. Projects range from a few days spent in an orphanage to entire semesters spent working alongside a community, and students come back with visions and opinions. As the International and Domestic Off-Campus Studies Committee (IDOCS) works with the Board of Regents Student Committee (BORSC) to explore off-campus service – what works and what doesn't – students share their experiences.

Kelin Loe ‘08, a member of BORSC, worked with Katherine Harris ‘06 last year to form a report on study abroad service at St. Olaf.

“What we found is that the greatest service you can do sometimes is to learn how to listen to someone, not necessarily to dig and build for them,” Loe said. “Sometimes it's not our place to go in and tell people how to farm rice; we need to learn how to do service respectfully.”

Mark Burris ‘08 spent a semester in India last spring, and expressed similar sentiments. “No matter what happens with volunteering, I would say for 99 percent of volunteers, it is only temporary, with even the Peace Corps lasting two years,” he said. “It takes a truly special person to see these injustices and then dedicate their life to doing what they can, instead of what little time I did. Whether it be four hours or four months, I can’t fault anyone who will take the time to help someone else.”

Indeed such visits are disruptive, but what if they are the only thing a student is able to do? Can he or she justify such disruption on the grounds of service or education, or is it just plain insensitive? “Service on abroad programs should be self-educational,” Loe said. “The real service we can do is to figure out how to be better citizens of the world, how to listen. Then we can use what we learn and apply it by working within systems that are already established and functional in other places – and not try to force our self-serving agendas on people.”

Drawing on Loe’s idea, other students emphasize a balance between listening and acting. “It's essential to listen,” said Elsa Marty ‘07, who participated in the Global Semester in fall 2005, “but in order to connect with people, you need to work with them too. I sometimes worry that abroad programs can turn into sight-seeing tours or shopping sprees, while there is a real human need to be rooted in a community and serve it. We need to learn and listen so we don't push our own agenda, but once you're familiar with the needs of the community, it's important to get active and work with them.”

Many students who went abroad have continued their service on campus as a way to stay connected to a community. John Schwehn ‘08, Nicole Novak ‘08, Mike Morelock ‘08 and Joel Bergeland ‘08 all spent a semester in Central America this past fall, and they plan to fundraise for a sustainability project they worked on in Guatemala.

“We're going to do a benefit dinner and a teach-in of some sort,” Schwehn said. Schwehn and others said they believe that abroad service at St. Olaf can change students’ vocations, and inspire them to find other opportunities to serve once back on campus. “It would be dishonest to say that my small actions in Central America made profound changes to the communities I was in,” he said. “But it changed me, and now I feel service as a calling more profoundly. It’s important to me to stay connected in ways that I can, and to serve effectively, I need to go back.”

Students from Term in the Middle East also left their abroad program with a concrete connection to a project. “Term in the Middle East has a standing connection with a boarding school for girls from rural areas in Morocco,” said Paul Buck ‘07, who returned from the program in mid-January.

“We committed to sponsoring the room, board and tuition for a student named Nourra, continuing the tradition of past Term in the Middle East groups,” Buck said. “We plan to find support from the community and anyone who wants to help.” Buck reminds himself of what his abroad program taught him about service: “Every corner of the world has its issues, and I understand I'm just one person supporting one issue. But hopefully, eventually, something bigger will come out of it for someone.”

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