My decision to become involved was based on my own personal transformation after experiencing and being touched by the Guatemalan people. I decided to reach out and try to make connections with local colleges that have immersion service programs. I connected with Siena College, a Franciscan liberal arts college in Latham, NY, with about 3,000 students.
The Siena group that we connected with sends students to Haiti, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic and St. Francis Inn, a homeless shelter/soup kitchen in Philadelphia, PA. Currently, Siena does not offer a follow-up/debriefing session for returning students; As such, they were receptive to our offer to present our pilot to their students. The program would allow students to remember what experiences touched them and tell their stories to others who were not on that immersion trip but who could understand based upon their own life experiences. Students would be encouraged to “dare to dream,” to reflect on how they have been changed and how their life’s “plan” may in fact now be altered. With the hope of inviting the students to look deeper into their experiences, our role was to listen, offer examples from our own experiences, and pose multiple questions.
So, how did it go? What did we learn? We learned that the students were in fact enthralled by their experiences. They all planned on returning or taking another service trip. Although their previous life experiences were different, they learned to look beyond the lack of material comforts to truly see the people. They were touched by the children and by the role reversal. Now they were the other—outsiders—and needed to learn how to navigate the landscape. They found it hard to make others understand why they went—not for a class grade, not for a free ride, not for research, but just for the experience.
As facilitators of this pilot, We all believe the program has merit. Returnees from immersion trips need a forum in which to process their many experiences. Pilot run #1 taught us that although there will be commonalities in all cross-cultural experiences, our program may have to be tailored to various age groups and to groups with varying previous life experiences. Those that are in the first half of life will perceive things differently than those in the second half of life. Our program must be fluid and adaptable, based upon the audience; Nevertheless, the message and format will remain the same.
We are going forward; this is one way Affiliates can live the Action Pillar to keep the spirit of mission alive.