The Environmentalist’s Bath: Turning Frustrations into Opportunities for Student Learning
BY KELLY DAGAN and KATIE BRUNK
The goal of the trip was for our students to learn more about poverty and homelessness through service. To prepare for our service experience, we provided them with data about hunger and homelessness in Jacksonville, Illinois. We asked them to read excerpts from Service-Learning Code of Ethics by Andrea Chapdelaine, Ana Ruiz, Judith Warchal, and Carole Wells to gain a better understanding of how they should conduct themselves and expects others to behave when engaging in service. We read Elizabeth Lynn and D. Susan Wisely’s article “Four Traditions of Philanthropy” to learn about the different types of service we engage in and to what end. We talked about the positive and negative aspects and outcomes of service after reading “What We Don’t Talk about when We Don’t Talk about Service” by Adam Davis and “What I Didn’t Know Then” by Kelli Covey. From these readings and group discussions, we wanted our students to think about and discuss issues like the extent of hunger/homelessness, the daily struggle of hunger and homelessness, what type of help is available, what type of help is still unavailable, questioning the causes of the problems, questioning the extent to which all service is useful, and examining individual motivations for serving.
Additionally, we asked that the students engage in service in our home community prior to our departure. Specifically, the students served at a local food pantry, Jacksonville Area Food Center and at a local homeless shelter, New Directions, before we left for spring break. Both the Jacksonville Food Center and New Directions are agencies that Illinois College students serve at regularly and with which our institution has relationships. By serving before the trip, the students would start thinking about issues of hunger and homelessness before we left and they would also be able to compare their experiences in Jacksonville with their experiences in San Francisco. In San Francisco we served at Bayview Mission an organization focused on serving the food insecure, the San Francisco Central Food Bank, St. Mary’s Center, an agency that serves those ages 65 and over who are hungry and homeless, Open Hand, a group that addresses hunger issues among the local HIV/AIDS population, and The Salvation Army.
When we considered offering an alternative spring break trip to our campus we decided we should rely on the connections and experience of an organization whose mission was to plan alternative breaks because it was the first time we had attempted to organize such an experience. However, we encountered obstacles because of a lack of preparation on the part of the agency we hired that we could have avoided by planning the trip ourselves. Additionally, although we all had so many great moments and learning experiences on the trip, there were times we as group leaders were concerned that the inadequate planning and the resulting problems would be what students remembered most about the trip.
The Environmentalist's Bath
A few days before departing for San Francisco, we learned that we had limited access to showers that were a five minute drive away and when we actually arrived at the shower house we learned that they were communal showers. The stunned look on many students’ faces when they saw that there was no privacy communicated more of their feelings than their words were able to convey. The majority of them had never had to use communal showers and many refused to use them. While this was not the only hurdle we faced, it was the most significant problem for the students at the beginning of the trip but by the end of the trip it turned out to be one of the best learning experiences for our students.
The reaction from students to having very limited opportunities to shower and then discovering that the showers were communal heightened tension in the group and we became concerned that students would lose their enthusiasm/commitment for the work we were there to engage in and develop less than ideal attitudes. At this point we began to encourage the students to critically think about the communal showers within the context of why they were on this trip. We indicated to the students that many people do not enjoy complete control over their housing situation and that for many people communal showers may be the only showers to which they have access. We also encouraged the students to think about the purpose of this trip...this trip was not about enjoying luxury and comfort it was about serving others and learning from them and the experience. Finally, we specifically reminded the students of the readings that we used in preparation for the trip and asked them to think about their actual experiences in terms of the theoretical work we had reviewed (why we serve, complexities of service).
From the shower frustrations in particular, we saw a rather amazing evolution. Since we knew showers would not be available at the church we would be staying at during our pre-departure meeting, we explained that showering wasn’t something that most people on the planet do on a daily basis and that a great alternative would be to just wash off with water and/or soap in the bathroom. We called it the “environmentalist’s bath.” We also said that because we were going to a drought stricken area where everyone was trying to conserve water, an “environmentalist’s bath” would also help achieve this goal. When this was first mentioned, there was no response, no nodding or verbal agreement and no further discussion on the subject. When we suggested this again after finding out about our limited access to the showers in California, still no one was very interested in using this option. Once it was discovered that the showers were communal, however, a couple students said that they would be happy to just have an “environmentalist’s bath” for the next couple of days. As the days passed, fewer and fewer students worried about showers and more and more students opted to wash their hair in the sink and settle for a shower every few days or even once that week. By the fifth day of the trip, when we held a formal civic reflection session to discuss our trip and service up to that point, no one complained about the shower situation at all. On the night before our return home, while packing Kelly asked, "Is everyone ready to get back home?" There was not much response…a few people shrugged their shoulders. Kelly pressed on, "Really, you're not ready to leave this lap of luxury yet?” Surprisingly, one student responded, “I actually wish we could stay longer,” and another said, “Yeah, this wasn’t so bad.”
The Importance of Connections: Lessons Learned From Serving at Home and Abroad
So, what did the students learn from their service experiences in San Francisco? There are many issues we could discuss, but here we would like to highlight those results that the students deemed to be most impactful, both positively and negatively.
Of all of the organizations at which we served, 64% of participants surveyed said that volunteering at Bayview Mission was their favorite aspect of the trip. One student indicated that, “This experience was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life and [Bayview Mission] in particular touched my heart and opened my eyes to a world you don't see every day!” What seemed to have the most impact for our students is that they actually engaged in direct service and even helped package and organize the goods they distributed beforehand. While the majority of our students found the direct service to be the most meaningful, many also recognized that service often involves unpleasant jobs that no one else wants to do or has had the time or the labor to do. One student highlighted this by recommending on the post-trip evaluation, “Do not expect to be helping the homeless and food insecure every day that you're there. You do a lot of the work that has been pushed to the side because they haven't had time or the resources to do it themselves.”
Also, 55% of participants said that the most important lesson they learned was that homeless and hunger are much bigger problems than they had previously realized. One student indicated that, “I was able to see firsthand how homeless and food-insecure people live. I also gained an understanding of how greatly some people depend on the organizations that we had the chance to volunteer with. Volunteering and gaining the exposure to these issues is something that I will forever appreciate and never forget.” Another participant said, “I was shocked to learn that 1 in 4 people in the Bay Area are food insecure. I also found in interesting how the food that reached the homeless was dispersed. We saw the food that we packaged from the San Francisco Food Back at the Open Hand.”
In addition to the academic lessons they learned, our students surprised us by the number of more practical lessons they also learned. First, the hindrances students perceived to be very important at the start of the trip, diminished as they learned to deal with them and learned that their privacy and a regularized hygiene regimen is a luxury many do not have. Second, forcing students out of their comfort zone may lead to tension, irritation, and frustration, but if they are participating for the right reasons – for personal growth, as a learning experience, to serve others, then they will overcome their discomfort and not let it overwhelm the experience. In fact, 55% of students advised future participants to come with an open mind and go with the flow. “Come with an open mind; try not to be negative; don't complain, because there are people in situations much worse than not getting to shower every day.” And, in the end, only one participant stated that the shower situation was a big weakness of the trip. It seems that frustrations paired with insightful readings and systematic reflection actually leads to greater understanding and compassion which, ultimately, leads to a feeling of connection.
The reality of many alternative spring break experiences is a “drop in and fix it” approach. However, best practices indicate that longer service commitments that attempt to develop an egalitarian partnership with agencies serves the agencies better and results in a greater impact on learning from the service experience (Jacoby 1996; Lewis 2004; Chapdelaine et. al. 2005; Blouin an Perry 2009). In order to ameliorate the “drop in and fix it approach” model to service-learning, we first had the students engage in service at “home” before we left. We wanted to ensure that our students knew hunger and homelessness are problems in our own community and that they do not need to travel elsewhere to learn about it or to serve those experiencing hunger or homelessness. We also wanted to empower them to make a difference on these issues before we left and give them the knowledge they needed to continue their work after spring break. Secondly, we have decided that we would like to offer the same trip regularly and go to the same locations. All of the organizations we served were intrigued and impressed with the notion that we came from across the country to do service and they all indicated that they would be happy to have us back. Going back to the same locations, even with different students will offer continuity of commitment to issues and service. Those organizations will be able to rely on a group of our students helping with bigger projects that their regular volunteers may not have time for or that they may not have the enough people to complete. Even though there may be new students coming to help each year, our institution and group leaders will be building a sustainable relationship with these organizations by regularly returning to serve. We believe this plan would also allow students to work on raising awareness regarding hunger and homelessness here on campus both with a local focus and a national focus. In fact, the most satisfying result from this alternative spring break is that 100% of the participants plan to continue to volunteer with organizations working on issues related to homelessness and hunger. One participant responded to an assessment question asking about their interest in continuing to work with organizations on issues of hunger and/or homelessness, “Yes, I have already [volunteered] since the trip.”
As leaders of the trip, we were incredibly frustrated by the lack of quality preparation for our trip that we had been expecting from the company we used. This frustration was supported by 91% of participants who stated that the biggest weakness of the trip was the lack of planning by the organization who we hired to develop the trip. However, upon more critical reflection, we also realize that it was because of the most frustrating experiences that our students were more likely to empathize with the people we were serving. In post trip feedback, one participant advised future participants to “Go with an open mind. Plans are always likely to change any moment.” Another student indicated, “Nothing will ever flow perfectly, just be prepared for surprises.” So, when we plan the next Alternative Spring Break trip from start to finish, we might throw in some planned adversity for the students to critically think about and work through, but we will have prepared them for it and hopefully they will get even more out of it. As one student thoughtfully advised future participants, “Take in each and every moment. You never know when that defining moment for you will occur. But when it does, it’s all you can think about. Additionally, don’t go in with expectations. Keep an open mind and understand that everyone has a story. Everyone comes from somewhere and life can change in an instant.”
Blouin, David D. and Evelyn M. Perry 2009. “Whom Does Service Learning Really Serve?
Community-Based Organizations’ Perspectives on Service Learning.” Teaching Sociology 37(2): 120-135.
Chapdelaine, Ana Ruiz, Judith Warchal, and Carole Wells. 2005. Service-Learning Code of
Ethics. Anker Publishing.
Jacoby, Barbara. 1996. “Service-Learning in Today’s Higher Education.” Pp. 3-26 in Service
Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices. Jossey-Boss.
Kendrick, J.R. Jr. 1999. “Building Campus-Community Connections: Using Service-learning in Sociology Courses” Ppgs. 39-44. In, In, Ostrow, James, Garry Hesser, and Sandra Enos (eds.) 1999. Cultivating the Sociological Imagination: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning. American Association for Higher Education in cooperation with American Sociological Association.
Lewis, Tammy L. 2004. “Service Learning for Social Change? Lessons From A Liberal Arts
College.” Teaching Sociology 32(1):94-108.
About the Authors
After completing her undergraduate degree at Illinois College, Katie Brunk was awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to teach in Ingelheim, Germany. She then joined Peace Corps and volunteered in Lesotho. Upon returning to the US, Brunk became the AmeriCorps VISTA in the Illinois College Leadership Program, which transitioned into a full time position as Coordinator of Civic Engagement.
Kelly Dagan is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Illinois College. She is personally committed to service within her community through her work with the Jacksonville Area Food Center and in her capacity as Vice President and Chair of the Family Selection Committee of the Jubilee Chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Her teaching and professional work has always been focused on issues of stratification in society, and more recently, she has become committed to enhancing her students' learning and encouraging their civic engagement through service.
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