I’ve finally found some time to sit down and digest what has all happened in the past 48 hours. What a weekend! I learned so much from all that was offered at the Impact Conference. In just two days; I attended an opportunity fair, 2 keynotes, and 7 workshops. The sessions lasted an hour and fifteen minutes, and I found useful takeaways in each one. The majority of the workshops I attended were centered on alternative breaks, because I was intentional on educating myself on how to improve the AWOL program that I help coordinate. I was so excited when I found out Break Away staff were going to be presenters at the conference. Break Away is a site bank for non-profit organizations that people can use to connect and plan alternative breaks. As one of the VP’s of BVU’s alternative break program, we use sites like Break Away to connect with service sites and figure logistics of spring break trips during the summer months before. I got the opportunity to not only attend a couple workshops held by Breakaway executive directors, but I took the initiative to meet and speak with them at the fair and also after their sessions.
I really appreciated being able to put faces to the organization that I had worked with. I must have made a good impression, because they highly encouraged me to sign up for their summer retreat program that brought together site leaders/student coordinators from all over the country for service and training. I was told I would be surrounded by “50 Zachs” in the sense that people with the same passion for student involvement in active citizenship. Having worked with the organization, I was familiar with the essential components and continuum that they used to foster successful alternative breaks, however; I wasn’t aware of the role of assessment in their vision for community impact. Too many times alternative breaks are more focused on student outcomes, instead of the root of what “what we do” does for the people being served.
I learned of sustainable ways that alternative breaks can make these significant impacts that are so desperately desired. We want to eliminate crossing fingers and hoping that we are facilitating the outreach we are working for. Without even knowing it, good-intentioned volunteers can create or reinforce problems for the service site. Just because people are being sent to the site doesn’t mean that they are qualified or required for the specific needs of the community. When those needs are being addressed; the key to community impact is the ability of volunteers to work themselves out of the problem. This may seem counter-intuitive, but in reality it encourages the people to ultimately become self-sufficient.
One of the most important aspects of alternative breaks is education. Education is the link between direct service and advocacy. Students returning from their trips should be motivated to ask those same questions relating to social justice on their trips to the needs of their own communities. Reorientation is vital to authorizing the active citizenship that should be occurring following an alternative break program. Without it, we are essentially sending students on feel-good experiences with short-term capacity for social change. One week of direct service is nice, but think of the impact students can make with the other 51 weeks of the year in their communities with the same applied principles.
I left the conference with a lot of ambitious goals for the AWOL program. I won’t quite reveal what those are exactly, but I can say they will push its social change capacity to its full potential. I love being in these types of environments, because it’s so inspiring to be surrounded by people with the same passion for social justice. I think I’m fairly new to the field, so I relish at the opportunity to reach out to people with experience such as higher education administrators whom I can learn from. As for the trip itself, I was glad I could share this experience with fellow Student MOVE members. The entire time, Jessica and Taylor had some pre-conceived idea that they were going to assert their power by teaming up against me. This was a walk in the park for me after being the only male out of the 10 students that went on my AWOL trip freshman year (*insert evil laugh). I was confident I could handle this situation by not being a complete pushover. Luckily Ken was there to save me from saying too much, or I might have been sent back in pieces. Lesson here: take refuge in sound logic, but winning isn’t always the objective of an argument (I guess…). Interesting group dynamics didn’t stray us away from enjoying ourselves and having a valuable experience. I’m grateful for this opportunity to become a better leader and hope to apply everything I’ve learned as soon as I can. Thanks for reading!