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Service, travel and community: Grinnell Alternative Break 2018

Service, travel and community: Grinnell Alternative Break 2018

By Lauren Miller

Every spring break, Grinnell students face a variety of options for how they spend their two weeks off. While some coordinate externships, others travel on athletic training trips or spend time at home. Still others opt to spend their time on one of Grinnell’s alternative break trips. This past break, there were two of these trips: one to South Dakota and the other to Fairfield, Iowa.

The group that went to South Dakota, led by Yuejun Chen ’20 and Kosuke Yo ’20, went to a Native American reservation and focused in on current issues that indigenous people face.

The leaders chose to work with the Sioux YMCA because according to Chen ’20, “They had a structured program for volunteers, and I could feel their passion [for working with Native Americans] right away.”

For the most part, the nine participants interacted with the kids and teens at the organization, both playing games with them and making and serving meals through the afterschool program.
In order to choose who went, Chen and Yo took an approach that focused on the diverse backgrounds and experiences of applicants in selecting a handful of the around 30 people who applied.

“We focused on the holistic dynamic of the group … we were looking for leaders — for people who had a lot of experience with Native American rights, and people who [barely had] any experience volunteering,” Chen said. “Everyone had their unique perspectives on the issues and contributed in their own way. … All of us played a part.”

Sophie Macklem-Johnson ’18 was one participant with background knowledge on reservation history.

“Even with my [history] seminar on reservations this semester, I was surprised by how much I didn’t know,” she said.

Macklem-Johnson added that she was grateful she had the opportunity provided by the alt-break trip to spend time getting a feel for life on the reservation.

However, Chen and Yo were sure to emphasize that the group was not there to make any big changes in such a short time.

“I’m trying to understand the issues and allow those with the expertise to be able to better do their jobs,” Chen said. Yo expanded on the importance of being active citizens in our own communities, as well as the challenge presented to the group now that the trip is over.

The other trip, led by Quinn Ercolani ’20 and Runyao Yin ’20, had the same community-minded approach, traveling within Iowa to the Maharishi University of Management in the small town of Fairfield. The focus of the trip, according to Ercolani, was to get a better grasp on the agricultural system in Iowa as well as to compare the town of Grinnell to another small Midwestern college town.

On the trip, the seven participants engaged in service learning, which is at the core of all alternative break trips. They made a community meal and brought it to the local church one evening and went to the university farm to help with repair work another day.

Ercolani described how although “a week isn’t enough to get to know any community … the snippets we were able to grasp won’t be soon forgotten.”

On a personal level, Ercolani felt the trip was eye-opening to today’s agricultural practices, especially because agriculture is not something that many students at Grinnell get to learn about through their time here, despite being in Iowa.

“Alternative-break trips provide an opportunity to students who don’t have the financial resources to get out of Grinnell and into another community … to do meaningful work that can be brought back to our community when the trip is over,” Ercolani said.

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