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Alternative spring break programs help Lutes connect to Parkland community and beyond

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Students volunteer at the Emergency Food Network on March 30 as part of an alternative spring break program, Parkland Immersion. (Photo: John Froschauer/PLU)

Image: Students volunteer at the Emergency Food Network on March 30 as part of an alternative spring break program, Parkland Immersion. (Photo: John Froschauer/PLU)

April 21, 2016
By Natalie DeFord '16
PLU Marketing & Communications

TACOMA, WASH. (April 21, 2016)- Senior Tyler Dobies and first-year Caitlin Johnston say spring break changed their lives. While some Pacific Lutheran University students may have gone on vacation or had fun in the sun, other Lutes – like Johnston and Dobies – were busy with alternative spring break programs designed to broaden their perspectives.

They say what they learned has opened their eyes and will help them to positively impact the PLU community. Dobies, a theater major, said he wanted to go on a trip and learn more about environmental justice outside of PLU. So, he went on one of the short-term spring break trips offered by the Wang Center for Global Education.

In partnership with the PLU Diversity Center, the trip sent eight students to Georgia and South Carolina to study environmental justice in a civil rights context. The trip focused largely on the history of racism and slavery, the importance of primary resources in an economic context and modern devices in society that unjustly divide people into different socioeconomic and racial areas.

“The whole experience was very meaningful,” Dobies said. “It put many things that we learn about in history books at school in a different light.”

For example, the most shocking component of the trip was when the students visited two very different cemeteries, Dobies said. One was a confederate cemetery – green and beautifully maintained with nice tombstones and flowers – and one cemetery in which people historically buried African-Americans.

“That was definitely a moment when I was like, wow, this is real,” he said. “Even the confederate grave was nice and kept up, and then seeing the torn-down, unkempt tombstones where they buried African-American people, that was meaningful and impactful to see. I am reminded of how much we still have to do.”

Dobies said the Lutes visited Savannah, Georgia and the South Carolina cities of Charleston and Saint Helena Island, where students visited the Penn Center that was one of the first abolitionist schools for freed slaves.

Other stops included museums, historical civil-rights era buildings and the two cemeteries.

They also worked with Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities (LAMC), an organization working to promote environmental justice, confronting some of the obstacles facing predominantly African-American communities.

Students took an environmental tour, as well. They also learned firsthand about food deserts, in which certain communities do not have a grocery store and people have to leave their communities and shop elsewhere to buy food.

Dobies said the differences they witnessed between higher-income areas and lower-income areas were striking. He said the wealthier areas with predominantly white residents were noticeably greener and cleaner, while the less wealthy areas where mostly African-Americans lived were places still dealing with historical pollution problems and other issues not present in the wealthier areas.

“Seeing that unfold before my eyes was pretty bewildering,” Dobies said.

He said studying the history of racism and slavery outside of the Northwest was a particularly valuable spring break experience that opened his eyes and shifted his perspective. Now, upon returning to PLU, he brings that perspective with him.

“After witnessing these different sorts of case studies, I am now able to reflect back on how Tacoma and Parkland were created,” Dobies said, “how certain vices have played out in the development of where we live.”

Megan Grover, manager of short-term study away programs, said this alternative spring break is just one of the many ways Lutes can study away. Even though this is a very short trip, she said all study away experiences are worthwhile.

“It’s a whole new experience to be able to leave campus and take your learning on the road,” she said. “The power of education away is that you can learn so much and use a place as a text, really studying the place you visit and applying your learning and skill sets to your experience there.”

Grover said other spring break programs in partnership with the Wang Center included a geoscience fieldwork trip that took 12 students to Death Valley National Park and a Master’s of Business Administration trip that took 11 MBA students to San José, Costa Rica to learn about global business perspectives.

"It’s a whole new experience to be able to leave campus and take your learning on the road. The power of education away is that you can learn so much and use a place as a text, really studying the place you visit and applying your learning and skill sets to your experience there."- Megan Grover, manager of short-term study away programs.

But Lutes didn’t have to study away to get similar eye-opening experiences. Caitlin Johnston, a first-year who hopes to study biology and French, participated in the Parkland Immersion program, which was co-sponsored by the Center for Community Engagement and Service (CCES), Associated Students of PLU (ASPLU) and Residential Life.

This program took three students on a five-day journey to explore Parkland and to learn more about the area surrounding PLU. Johnston said she would like to be in the program again next year since there is still so much to learn.

“It was really cool to see things in the area that I honestly wouldn’t have known about from just being at PLU,” Johnston said.

Students went on a driving tour of Parkland, learned the town’s history, had breakfast with community members and ate s’mores with PLU President Thomas Krise and his wife, Patricia.

They also worked with kids from Keithley Middle School, worked with the Emergency Food Network and volunteered at L’Arche farms and the Trinity Lutheran Church Gardens of Edible Grace.

Johnston, who enjoys working in the PLU Community Garden and with Big Buddies, said she continues to look for opportunities for community involvement.

“I always think it’s good to do service and I know that I want to become a part of the community in Parkland,” she said. “I want to maintain smiling and talking to people, being open and being around the people that live here. That’s what all our students should do.”

The program offered students a chance to feel more connected to the Parkland community and to keep them from being isolated inside the Lute dome, Johnston said.

“I think there is a big disconnect between PLU students and the community,” she said. “There’s sort of this socioeconomic divide and I think because of that many people have a negative connotation of Parkland.”

Johnston said she hopes more students will go on the trip next year, after conflicts with Easter weekend this year led to low attendance.

However, program co-coordinator Devynne Nelons, Healthy Parkland Initiatives Coordinator for CCES, said the group was still able to have nice discussions and doing so more intimately was not necessarily a bad thing.

“This is an excellent opportunity for students to get to know the Parkland community better. Students got to do fun activities at local businesses and got some service learning experiences, too,” Nelons said. “It’s also a great way to give back and get to know the PLU area a little bit better.”

Away and at home, Lutes were able to learn more about themselves through different experiences, as well as reflect on their role in the PLU community. Dobies and Johnston both encourage other Lutes to be actively involved with service work and conversations about social justice. They say spring break is the perfect opportunity to do that.