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“Students Engaging and Responding through Volunteer Experiences”

Life After the “Aha Moment”

Reflections in creating a first-year living-learning community focused on civic engagement

SERVE began in 2009 as a theme-housing option on the Virginia Tech campus. The program focuses on creating an environment for first-year students that fosters personal and civic development. The fall-spring curricular framework seeks to seamlessly integrate theory, service, and reflection. While studying community development and social change theory in the classroom, SERVE students are also engaged in a variety of service experiences. Given both theoretical context and shared engagement experience as common ground, students discuss and reflect during class, online, and through written reflections.

Karen Glass, Gabriela Carrillo, Jake Grohs

Thematic Key In civic development, we can think about many critical “aha moments” – epiphanies where some experience or dialogue leads one to tread new territory in personal understanding, context within the whole, linkage between personal choice and social issues… the list is endless. We have come to believe that asking good questions can be the key to helping each other unpack those “aha moments” and push through to real articulated learning and growth. Throughout this poster, you will find some “critical questions” which we have found to be particularly useful in both SERVE and in our own lives. Each question’s context within SERVE as part of an intentional structure for reflection on critical issues is shown in italics while a personal reflection or story from one of the authors is given in regular font. Please enjoy! -K Karen Glass, Third-Year SERVE Student -G Gabriela Carrillo, Second-Year SERVE Student -J Jake Grohs, Director of SERVE

What catalyzes community from day one?

Community and Belonging Am I a part of something bigger than myself?

If students have a safe environment to reflect and discuss their experiences, they can investigate their purpose in service and develop their personal identity within their community.

The Challenge of the “Aha Moment”: When a student acknowledges a perspective-changing experience but then never learns to articulate the value of that experience, the purpose is easily forgotten.

Personal Identity What makes me come alive?

Who am I in the context of the whole?

Questions to Live By What questions will continue to push me past the ‘aha moment’ into real growth?

Resilience and Growth When encountering change, how can my organization continue to persevere and grow?

What does community look, taste, feel, and smell like?

We have found that one of the most effective ways of fostering community is to start right away! Waiting until everyone is settled gives individuals time to build up walls and isolate themselves from the group.

This question is one of the first ones addressed in class. Its strategy is to get students thinking about community in more than just the conventional descriptions. What is it like to really feel like you belong somewhere?

The kick-off to this living-learning environment is a fall retreat the weekend before classes start. Students move into the dorm on Wednesday and then spend Friday and Saturday together away from campus getting to know each other and learning about the passions and interests of their hall mates. When the students get back to campus, strangers have become acquaintances and are well on their way to becoming friends. The timing of this retreat is crucial to the growth of the SERVE community. Because it occurs before classes start, it catches students at one of their most vulnerable, unsure times and places them in a safe place for building friendships right from the beginning. Another strength is that it is an overnight retreat off-campus. The students have uninterrupted time with few distractions to commit to getting to know one another.

Blue. Cactus. Fireworks. Mysterious. Home. Tabasco vs. Tapatio. Passionate. Barbecue. Wild fires. Red. Sirens. Festival. Prayer. Mosquitos. Caring. White. Comfortable. -G

One of my favorite parts of SERVE has been how community development is as important as productivity through service. There is nothing like 20 of us piled into our director’s small farmhouse, waiting for homemade pizzas to make their way out of the oven, one at a time. These pizza nights are always full of stories - Mike, Gaya, and Melanie’s recent service trip to the Dominican Republic, Analise’s work as a summer camp counselor, Caitlin’s experience volunteering with Adult Day Services, a program Virginia Tech offers for the elderly. We spend time eating, laughing, and enjoying getting to know one another. -K

The Opportunity of the “Aha Moment”:

What is my story? One assignment given during the first few weeks of the fall semester is the “Where I’m From Poem” - an opportunity for students to take the time to consider their past and articulate the experiences of their life that make up who they are. It is our belief that as students practice reflecting on their past experiences, they become more equipped to articulate present experiences and reflect on how those events are relevant to who they are becoming as a person.

Donald Miller defines a story as, “a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” If that is the case, my story doesn’t include any dramatic scenes with Chariots of Fire playing in the background as I conquer my fears in slow motion. The story of my everyday life is in each moment, each choice to continue moving forward. Mahatma Gandhi says, “my life is my message.” I desire for my message to be one of compassion and patience. My story lies in setting aside my to do list from time to time - making room for slow, aimless conversation that brings strength to a friendship that no checked-off task could bring. -K

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” - Harold Whitman

It’s important to me to be able to learn and understand why people think and act the way they do. It is only then that I can appreciate the people around me and only then that I can see the good in what I do. Stories that are heard with an open mind. My goal had not been to make a difference in Rita’s life. I had walked into Christiansburg’s Community Center believing I would help the children in the community get a better education and ultimately a more satisfying life than they would have gotten without this new after-school program. But instead, I felt joy because Rita’s dreams were becoming a reality. She wasn’t the one “in need,” but her passion, enthusiasm, and appreciation for our help made me feel like I had done the most amazing thing ever. I didn’t feel superior. It was humbling. Stories that are heard with an open heart. -G

What possibility or opportunity can we cocreate that we cannot create alone? This question is offered in Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging and is one that SERVE students will hear time and time again throughout the program. It is critical because it essentially replaces over-used questions such as “What is wrong with this system?” or “Why don’t they fix that?” We find this “possibility” question to be critical in re-framing “they” to “we” that each one of us has played a role in what brings our community to where it is today and that admitting ownership is the first step. By exploring a healthy role for “one’s self” in the possibility, realizing each is just one part of many, then we can also develop a necessary understanding of individual roles in the “problem.”

This question, though asked in a slightly different form, laid the foundation for the creation of SERVE as Virginia Tech’s newest living-learning community. I remember stewing on “What is the value added?” With a very active body of student organizations doing service on campus, it became clear that SERVE could not just be about offering great service projects for program participants. We soon became overwhelmed with possibility! Could we cocreate an environment where students would feel safe and supported enough to unpack service experiences and dig for meaning? What if we threw away notions of the limits placed on “what level of reflection is realistic for freshman students?” If we really pushed students to better understand self within the context of the broader community, what would we see? Though there are still many similar “possibility” questions which remain to be asked… I know that I never cease to be amazed at the journey all of SERVE is on together. - J

What is the value of being fully attentive to the stories of others? This question finds its place in SERVE through two assignments: The “Personal Call to Service Interview” and the “Deep Listening Exercise.” The Personal Call to Service Interview offers students a chance to interview someone who has had an impact on their life and the lives of others - to learn the story of one of their role models. In hearing a mentor articulate passions and experiences, the students become more prepared to reflect on their own personal call to service.

Can we, as individuals and a community, stay true to who we are as we change and grow?

The Deep Listening Exercise occurs during class; students pair off and practice sharing and listening to the stories of their peers in a new way.

When people around you sense that you genuinely care about their circumstances, thoughts, and concerns, there is a climate of openness and honesty. When you are attentive to the stories they tell, those words begin to thread their way into the deeper conversations - the essence of who the person is and what matters to them. I have found this to be especially true in my friendship with a 90-year-old woman named Emily. I spend time every week with Emily and her husband, Bob, and have found so much value in spending hours collecting and absorbing their stories. A year ago, Emily expressed an interest in recording her stories. We spent a week talking through her past - from her earliest memories in the 1920s through The Great Depression, The Civil Rights Movement, the growth of the YMCA in the US, to present day. The conversations were recorded onto cassette tapes and I spent the summer transcribing them and compiling them into a hard-cover book. Bob and Emily distributed over 70 copies of the book to their friends and family members and it has become a priceless record of her story. Not only were Emily’s dreams of collecting her memories realized, but I was able to be a witness to the power of her story. -K

What is my personal call to service? During the fall semester, as students learn the process of reflection; they are asked to define their personal call to service. This task requires students to not only look back at their story, but particularly at their story in the context of service. Students have the opportunity to recognize some of the “aha moments” in their past and potentially recognize a theme or thread that can help inform them of the future of their commitment to service.

Oftentimes, I complain about having moved too much in my childhood. When I’m asked, “Why architecture?” I like to say, “Well, I’ve never had something I could call ‘home.’” And then I tell my story about how happy I was to move out of Westminster, where gang support was the only kind of service people believed in. I like to tell them how even though in Irvine service was a competition that made me feel alienated from everything, I had the opportunity to start a club called ‘Home for a Child’ and help orphans who might have been feeling the same way I always felt. Homeless. Yet the truth is, service has always been my home. -G

With around 20 students involved in SERVE, the question of growth becomes a critical one. What is on the horizon? How can we continue to focus on the individual student – her/his personal story, experiences, interests, reflections, and future – as we grow? How can we continue to structure intimate interactions between archetypal civic leaders in our community and SERVE students as they seek to further refine individual civic identities?

These questions can become a bit scary – especially as a program that prides itself on being small and nimble enough to respond to new opportunities or challenges – but, we have already pointed out what we believe to be our “answer” in this poster. “What possibility can we cocreate that we cannot create alone?” We are ever seeking to widen the circle of interested co-educators, co-SERVErs. We are trying to use second-year students, Community Advisors, in new and exciting ways as educators that both build capacity for the program (many hands make light work) while helping push each Community Advisor further in her/his journey of personal development. We are trying to find ways to involve the broader community – not just for “service projects,” but also in community-wide issues such as an upcoming Citizen Forum on Economic Security through the Kettering Foundation. With this ever-expanding circle, we continue to ask this same question of possibility… and I imagine we will all be pleasantly surprised at where that takes us! - J

Life After the Aha Moment  

Poster completed for the Gulf South Summity for Heigher Eduction, March 2011

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