(Moderator note: This post was written by guest contribor, Sarah Crissinger, Graduate Student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Graduate School of Library and Information Science.)
In the Fall of 2003, four college freshmen stayed up late one night to discuss the challenges of their lives—the stereotypes they faced and the social issues that surrounded them. They dreamed that young people could make a difference while touring the country. They decided that civic engagement was the answer and that spring break was the opportune time.
On March 12, 2004 those students embarked on the first Students Today Leaders Forever (STLF) tour from the Minnesotan Twin Cities. In ten years, the organization has become a national non-profit organization that has led tours and camps for middle school, high school, and college students. Today they have had more than 20,000 participants serve more than 300,000 hours across the country (Students Today Leaders Forever).
STLF’s mission is to reveal leadership through service, relationships, and action. Reveal is a key word because STLF isn’t in the business of making leaders; the organization firmly believes that the students that decide to go on a tour are already leaders. STLF instead attempts to facilitate the students’ discovery of their leadership strengths.
STLF’s largest initiative to carry out this mission is Pay It Forward (PIF) tours. Hundreds of PIF tours leave each Spring Break for a nine-day journey of service and reflection. Throughout the week, college students travel through five or more cities, providing service at an organization in each city. The tour culminates in a “celebration city” where multiple tour groups meet up to do one huge service project.
This spring break I participated in The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s PIF tour. We traveled from Champaign, Illinois to San Antonio, Texas with stops in Memphis, Jackson, New Orleans, Lafayette, and Houston. One might wonder how the tour covers over 2,000 miles and still finds time to fit in service. The answer is that the days are long, the nights are short, but every moment is rewarding.
Each day starts around 7 or 8 AM with a service project. Projects range from sorting cans for food banks to cleaning the only summer camp for disabled children in Louisiana. Service ends around lunchtime. Students are then given two or three hours to tour the city. After visiting attractions, students board the bus to travel three or four hours to the next destination. The evening concludes with group activities that promote reflection and self- evaluation.
My favorite service project was in my favorite city of the tour. Unsurprisingly, New Orleans’ character and hospitality drew me in more than any other city that I have ever visited. The city radiates resilience while offering sights, smells, and tastes that mix French, Creole, and Southern culture into uniqueness that can’t be found anywhere else. Our service project took place at the Arc of Greater New Orleans. The Arc serves children and adults that have developmental and intellectual disabilities so that they can live life “to their fullest potential” (Arc of Greater New Orleans). One of the Arc’s sources of funding comes from recycling Mardi Gras beads. Each year, hundreds of thousands of beads are thrown during New Orleans’ festivals. While many don’t think about the beads until the next festival season, it’s extremely important to recycle or reuse the beads. Because the beads are made out of plastic and sometimes metallic paint, they don’t degrade well and could cause hazards in landfills. The Arc collects beads around the city, sorts them, and then re-sells them to vendors for the next year. Our STLF group helped them sort three tubs of beads—a task that would have taken their employees months. We were able to help fund their inspiring mission while saving the environment. To read more about the Arc, click here.
It would be easy to elaborate on all of the ways that our STLF group helped others. I could list the number of people that we helped feed or the number of children we interacted with. But the truth is that every minute of our service was supported by those around us. Our STLF group stayed in a church or school almost every night because leaders were generous enough to let us. Many church members provided us with (homemade!) meals and even lunches for the next day. Finding the funds to stay at a hotel every night or pay for every meal would have been unrealistic for college students. In short, we were able to serve because other people were generous enough to serve us.
Many scholars and organizations find it difficult to find one holistic, conclusive definition of “civic engagement” (Adler and Goggin 2005). Before going on the STLF trip, I thought that civic engagement was about participating with other citizens or community members to serve or make a difference. I still think that this is the foundation of civic engagement, but my definition has expanded quite a bit. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has created a civic engagement rubric that gives universities a starting point to evaluate and assess students’ engagement. This is, in my opinion, the most complete definition of civic engagement because the last line states “civic engagement encompasses actions wherein individuals participate in activities of personal and public concern that are both individually life enriching and socially beneficial to the community” (Association of American Colleges and Universities).
Before my experience with STLF, any community service or service learning that I did focused on how I had helped others, how I had made a difference, how I had been the change; my focus was on the gains that others had experienced because of me. I realize now that that’s only part of the experience! My trip demonstrated that the people I worked alongside, the organizations I served, and the experience I gained all helped me develop as a human being, a student, a librarian, a citizen, a friend, and a leader.
I experienced so many moments of unplanned and unexpected learning throughout the tour. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has a large international student population and our tour represented that well. Out of 45 participants, more than 5 were international students from China. I spent a lot of time packing food next to these students or sitting with them on the bus. They might have thought that I was teaching them about American culture, language, and cuisine. But the truth is that they taught me way more than I ever imparted to them. I learned about Chinese social norms, language tones, familial customs, and food preparation. Before embarking on the trip I didn’t expect to learn about Chinese culture. But I am so humbled and thankful that I did; it has informed my view of the world around me and made me think more critically about cultural practices.
Another unintended learning experience was a result of our living situation over the nine-day trip. Many of the facilities we were fortunate to stay at didn’t have showers or beds. Thus, many of us only got to shower two times for the entire journey. We often slept on gym floors (or if we were lucky church pews) with sleeping bags. We primarily ate food that was cheap or donated to us. While I in no way think that this is comparable to the unimaginable hardships that homeless people experience, it definitely gave me new insight. I now see many of my daily activities as luxuries instead of rights. One of the most moving moments of trip illustrated this. On our way home we stopped for a night in Little Rock, Arkansas so that our bus driver could sleep. We stayed at a shelter that functioned as a soup kitchen; the next morning we had to be out of the shelter at 8 AM so that the soup kitchen could start serving food at 9 AM. We woke up early to start loading the bus, as many of us were anxious to get home to take a shower or sleep in a bed. As soon as I walked out of the doors, I noticed a line of homeless men forming. It was incredibly poignant to walk past each of them as I loaded my huge suitcase of belongings onto a bus that would take me to my comfortable bed and hot shower. I realized that my experiences that week weren’t a fraction of the realizations that they faced everyday.
Not all of my learning experiences were unplanned; I learned from a lot of the people that I thought I would. This includes the leaders of the organizations that we served. I was able to experience their passion and dedication—even if it was only for a few hours. It was refreshing to see the enthusiasm in their eyes, even when their work might seem daunting or underfunded. My other fellow bus mates also helped me learn that growth happens in moments of vulnerability and that every single person we meet has something to teach us. Finally, I learned from the students that organized and led the entire tour. Their guidance still inspires me.
Community engagement happens in these moments of learning. The face of community engagement will always be rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty to help others. But what happens behind the scenes—those moments of personal growth and exploration—make community engagement engaging. I feel so blessed to have experienced that reciprocal growth firsthand.
Adler, R. P., & Goggin, J. (2005). What do we mean by “civic engagement”? Journal of Transformative Education, 3(3), 236-253. http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1177/1541344605276792
Arc of Greater New Orleans (n.d.). Home. Retrieved from http://www.arcgno.org/index.php
Association of American Colleges and Universities. (n.d.). Civic Engagement Value Rubric. Retrieved from http://www.aacu.org/value/rubrics/pdf/civicengagement.pdf
Eads, E. (2014, March 2). Throw Me Something (Again), Mister: Mardis Gras Beads Revived. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2014/03/02/284635074/throw-me-something-again-mister-mardi-gras-beads-revived
STLF at Illinois. (2012). Home. Retrieved from http://www.stlf-illinois.net/
Students Today Leaders Forever. (2014). Home. Retrieved from http://www.stlf-illinois.net/