Spring Break Service Trips Impact Buena Vista University Students

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A group of students from Buena Vista University spent their spring break participating in Alternative Week of Off-site Learning (AWOL) trips, volunteering their time and service in various locations.

Students who participated in the BVU "Children and Poverty" AWOL trip

Back L-R: Alexis Wiltgen, Tesia Posekany, Dr. Hanson, Andrew Zinn, Zach Ahrens; Front: Brady Stier, Kelsey Davidson, Sloan Morrow, Sharon Feld, Gwendolyn Walton, Corey Hanula, Dr. Farmer-Hanson

Education, at its foundation, is about risk-taking and stepping outside your comfort zone.... It’s when you’re out of that comfort zone, when you’re learning about someone else’s life and their struggles by living it, that’s when the lesson really sticks.

Over 40 Buena Vista University (BVU) students participated in four AWOL (Alternative Week of Off-site Learning) trips during spring break, enabling them to volunteer their time and service to a variety of people and programs.

AWOL has sent over 500 volunteers and completed nearly 18,000 hours of service worldwide, furthering its mission to immerse students in different cultures, heighten social awareness and advocate life-long social action through service on a local, regional and international level.

This year’s trips focused on children and poverty in Montego Bay, Jamaica; disaster relief and clean-up efforts in Greeley, Colo.; environmental research and animal rescue in Costa Rica; and hunger and health outreach in Staten Island, N.Y.

Here are more details about the trips and a selection of comments from 2014 AWOL participants:

-- Children and Poverty --
BVU students traveled to Montego Bay, Jamaica, and volunteered in nearby Copse, where they assisted with many day-to-day activities at the West Haven Children’s Home, an orphanage for disabled children. In addition to helping feed, bathe and get the children ready for the day, the students helped plan Sports Day, an event similar to the Special Olympics.

Co-advisors for the trip were Dr. Ashley Farmer-Hanson, director of civic engagement at BVU and Dr. Matt Hanson, assistant professor of exercise science.

“Students grow during the week, and they come back inspired to change something locally,” said Farmer-Hanson. “It shows students that there are people all over the world, including in Storm Lake, who we can serve, learn from and work with to solve some of the most crucial social problems.”

“I spent time with a girl who was physically disabled and unable to speak, but on Sports Day, she smiled and giggled the whole time,” said Sharon Feld, a senior athletic training and exercise science major from Bondurant and student site leader for the trip. “Watching our actions bring a little girl so much happiness really left a lasting impression. These experiences create a sense of caring and compassion in people and a desire to do more.”

Sloane Morrow, a sophomore elementary education major from Fort Dodge and also a student site leader, said, “Jamaica has been one of the most eye-opening, life-changing and beautiful opportunities I have ever had.”

Other students who participated in the Children and Poverty AWOL trip were Alexis Wiltgen, a senior elementary education major from Le Mars; Andrew Zinn, a senior elementary education major from Spencer; Brady Stier, a senior exercise science major from Austin, Minn.; Corey Hannula, a senior exercise science and athletic training major from Maplewood, Minn.; Gwendolyn Walton, a senior psychology major from Granger; Kelsey Davidson, a senior music and elementary education major from Schaller; Tesia Posekany, a senior biology major from Woodburn; and Zachary Ahrens, a senior exercise science and biology major from Carroll.

-- Disaster Relief --
Participants in the Disaster Relief trip experienced the after-effects of a weather-related disaster and gained an understanding of the long process of recovery and rebuilding when they traveled to Greeley, Colo., and assisted with cleanup efforts from last year’s catastrophic flooding. Students completed a variety of cleanup tasks, worked with a local Habitat for Humanity chapter, cleared debris from a fish farm, volunteered at a food bank and helped restore a historic horse barn.

Advisors for the experience were Dr. Andrea Frantz, associate professor of digital media and Tami Laursen, director of health services and wellness at BVU.

“An AWOL trip is a break from school, but it’s a different sort of break,” said Frantz. “Education, at its foundation, is about risk-taking and stepping outside your comfort zone, and experiences like these are really new for our students. It’s when you’re out of that comfort zone, when you’re learning about someone else’s life and their struggles by living it, that’s when the lesson really sticks.”

“There was an open mic at a dinner hosted for residents affected by the flood and volunteers from all over the country,” said Beatrice Biedenfeld, a senior management major from Colfax and a student site leader for the trip. “Listening to their stories, I was impressed with the optimism and hope they all had, no matter what was handed to them. It really reminded me how lucky I am and how important it is to give back.”

Kevin Coriolan, a senior corporate communication and digital media major from Worthington, Minn., was also a student site leader for the trip. Other students who participated in the Disaster Relief AWOL experience were Cassandra Forsyth, a senior graphic design, digital communication and digital media major from Griswold; Emily Phipps, a junior biology major from Monroe; Michael Kaufmann, a senior accounting, finance and banking and business economics major from Harlan; Samantha Hirschman, a freshman biology major from Cherokee; Embrosia (Echo) King, a junior athletic training major from Claremore, Okla.; Ariana Butterfield, a junior music major from Canton, S.D.; Alejandra Mendoza, a sophomore Spanish major from Alta; and Deven Rieck, a sophomore social work major from Valparaiso, Neb.

-- Environmental and Animal Rescue --
Students concerned with environmental issues and conservation traveled to Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula to volunteer at the Widecast Sea Turtle Station, where they netted, weighed and tagged turtles, and collected tissue samples to check the endangered sea turtles for parasites before releasing them back to the ocean. They then went to a local elementary school in Matapalo, Costa Rica, where some students helped teach English and others worked to improve the playground by fixing signs, planting a garden so they can use the produce in their cafeteria, cleaning and picking up litter around the school grounds.

Advisors for the experience were Ellen Schiltz, director of recreation services and Dale Scully, associate dean of students at BVU.

“After the students helped the Widecast researchers collect data, it was incredible watching the entire team cheer the turtles on as they made their way back to sea,” said Schiltz. “Not only do AWOL experiences give our students a global perspective, but it shows them how they can work as a team, and how their efforts, no matter where they are, have an impact.”

“It was the first sea turtle I had ever seen, let alone touched," said Bonnie Keller, a junior biology and psychology major from Sioux City. “Now, I’m working with individuals committed to saving them. On our last day, one of the researchers gave a presentation using real-time data that we collected. It was incredible to see how the information we gathered would be used, and how it would help protect this endangered animal.”

Michael Boyle, a senior marketing and corporate math major from Perry, was also a student site leader for the trip. Other students who participated in the Environmental and Animal Rescue AWOL experience were Ariana Rodriguez, a senior graphic design and visual communication major from Storm Lake; Ashley Rogers, a senior biochemistry major from Denison; Charlotte Strope, a freshman business with concentration in marketing major from Longmont, Colo.; Claire Boston, a sophomore theatre and digital media major from Cedar Rapids; Justin Fejfar, a senior exercise science major from Remsen; Logan Bardwell, a freshman business major from Van Meter; Tabitha Ubben, a junior biology major from Bristow; and Natalie Bellairs, a senior biology major from Osage.

-- Health and Hunger --
BVU students traveled to Staten Island, N.Y., where they partnered with two organizations. Project Hospitality focuses on hunger, homelessness and outreach to individuals with HIV/AIDS, and Tunnels2Towers concentrates on Hurricane Sandy relief work. Students completed a remodeling project on a home affected by the storm and worked at a food pantry, stocking shelves and helping people shop. After a workshop for people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, students served and shared meals with people affected by the disease at the Positive Living Dinner event.

Advisors for the experience were Ken Meissner, director of spiritual life and Mark Shea, director of student success at BVU.

“For me and most of the students, the most memorable moments were the interactions we had with people we met during the Positive Living Dinner,” said Shea. “We had an opportunity to hear their stories and understand the issues they face every day. It helped us all take a look at our own lives in comparison to someone facing much greater challenges than we are.”

“AWOL service trips help students realize that they cannot always transform social issues alone, but they can make a difference by taking some face-to-face and heart-to-heart time with others,” said Meissner. “Through an open understanding with people who don’t share our experiences, each of us can capture a glimpse of authentic compassion that can transform the dynamics between strangers. And when we’re no longer strangers, we can work together to address the issues and problems we face today.”

Caitlin Bach, a senior biology major from Bondurant and Caitlin Hoffman, a senior communication studies major from Sioux City were the student site leaders for the trip. Other students who participated in the Health and Hunger AWOL experience were Charles Webster, a junior criminology and criminal justice major from Panora; Carlee Brown, a junior criminology and criminal justice major from Harrisonville, Mo.; Joshua Fortmann, a junior biology major from Cedar Rapids; Karl Ahrendsen, a senior physics and computer science – math major from Clarion; Kelsey Blum, a junior elementary education major from Arcadia; Krystal Schulte, a senior art and digital media major from Carroll; Meghan Harmening, a junior business with financial decision-making emphasis and accounting major from Marshall, Minn.; Alicia Savoy, a sophomore biology major from Garner; Kadie Dennison, a senior communication studies and theatre major from Lisbon; and Amanda Jamtgaard, a senior accounting major from Ireton.

About Buena Vista University
Buena Vista graduates have a 97 percent rate of employment or admission to graduate/professional schools within six months of graduation, which reflects the quality of the academic programs, faculty, facilities and cutting-edge technology. Forty-three majors and 15 pre-professional programs provide an array of academic options that blend the liberal arts with real-world applications. Generous merit and need-based financial aid programs, and support for academic travel, research, and internships, make BVU an affordable option for all students.

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Jill Heisterkamp
Buena Vista University
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