Tag Archives: A student’s voice

Takeaway Lessons from Japan Summer Service Learning 2019

As this year’s Japan Service Learning Program wrapped up, students were given the opportunity to reflect on the impact of the immersive, collaborative learning experiences in which they participated. In the second of two JSSL posts, participant Xuan He ’20 discusses the key lessons she learned during the program, and how she hopes to apply those lessons to her future experiences.

I am Xuan He, a senior Religion major at Middlebury College from Zhejiang, China. It is my third year studying Japanese. This July, I was selected as one of the Middlebury students to participate in the four-week Japan Summer Service Learning (JSSL) program at International Christian University (ICU), Middlebury’s partner university in Mitaka, Japan.

JSSL is an opportunity for students from various countries to experience Japanese culture firsthand and to learn about themselves, Japanese society, and their own societies through community engagement. Our cohort this year consisted of 16 students, including four Middlebury students, six ICU students, two students from Assumption University in Thailand, two students from Silliman University in the Philippines, and two from Union Christian University in India. Our academic foci also cover a wide range of disciplines, including Agriculture, Hospitality and Tourism Management, Industrial Design, Zoology, Religion, Japanese Language and Culture, Music, Economics, Psychology, History, Environmental Studies, and more.

Students work together to help clean up a blueberry farm.

JSSL was a life-changing experience for me. The program consisted of multiple parts. Between July 8-18, we divided into small groups to volunteer at various sites in the local Mitaka city area, including public elementary schools, alternative schools for students with special learning needs, elderly care homes, an environmental NPO, and community-gathering centers. We participated in a variety of service activities, such as organizing after-school activities for children, visiting English classes at local elementary schools, removing rotten blueberries from the ground at a local blueberry farm to prevent the spread of diseases, and performing a traditional style Japanese tea ceremony. On July 13, we each also had the opportunity to visit a local Japanese family. I bonded deeply with my host family. It was the highlight of my time in Mitaka.

Between July 19-23, as a group we travelled to a rural village located at the southern tip of Nagano Prefecture called Tenryu Village, about five hours west of Tokyo. There we conducted oral history interviews with five Tenryu village elders under the guidance of Professor Linda White from the Japanese Department at Middlebury College. We give our deepest gratitude to our interviewees who generously shared with us their life stories as well as the history of Tenryu Village in the last century. Learning about the history of the village through an individual’s life experiences taught us a humbling lesson: There is no one single Truth. Every person’s experience matters.

If I need to name one thing I took away from JSSL, I would say I learned that intercultural dialogue is not easy. Although in our group English was the lingua franca, we quickly learned that not everybody spoke English on the same level or in the same way. Inevitably, there were times of miscommunication, misunderstandings, and frustrations. However, these challenges did not break us but instead strengthened our connection over time. That is because we were a group of individuals who were willing to consider others’ perspectives, listen intently, and act upon the feedback we had received from others.

Willingness to open ourselves to each other was another special quality of our group. During the program, we regularly had reflection meetings or online reflection forums to share our experiences with each other. I really appreciated that everyone was willing to open up their hearts to share their honest feelings, ups and downs with each other. It was also very helpful to have various ways to share our thoughts with each other, because not everybody runs at the same speed.

These four weeks have brought me a few new insights about myself. During the program I discovered that I really enjoy working with a group of diverse, open-minded and collaboration-minded individuals. It was also rewarding to work with a team with diverse personalities, interests, and talents. One of our culmination projects was producing a booklet for the Tenryu villagers whom we interviewed during our Oral History project. We divided into small groups based on our interests and skills, but the process did not go smoothly from the beginning. Since it was a collaborative creative project, different individuals had different ideas of what the final product might look like. It took a lot of communication, patience, trust, and flexibility with change for us to eventually reach our outcome. It was the collaborative spirit of our group that allowed us to overcome numerous challenges and achieve an impressive outcome in less than two days.

Students interview a resident during the oral history component of the program.

Moving forward, I look forward to applying these lessons that I learned during JSSL about interpersonal relationships and intercultural communication to my existing relationships with other people and the ones I will build in the future. I believe these “soft” skills are a valuable asset that I can carry with me wherever I go. Last but not least, I am grateful for having attended JSSL because going to Japan has allowed me to gain more confidence in my Japanese skills. I am excited to continue studying Japanese in my last year at Middlebury.

In close, I would like to thank both the CCE and the CCI offices for funding my incredible experience in Japan this summer, Kristen Mullins and the staff members from ICU Service Learning Center, my program mates, as well as all the kind-hearted Japanese people I met on this trip. JSSL 2019 will always have a special place in my heart.

Thank you for sharing your powerful experiences, Xuan!

Language, Cultures, and Students in Motion – A Spring Break in the Kingdom

Kyler Blodgett ’17 writes about his experience on a LiM-Mini-MAlt trip this spring break to Orleans County and the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont with four other Middlebury students.

Middlebury Students at LRHSMiddlebury Students

“The five of us piled into the van early on the Tuesday morning of Spring Break, wondering if we had remembered all the USBs, international candies, and travel knick knacks for the next three days. We were headed 100 miles north of campus to Orleans County and the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont to deliver interactive presentations focused on global awareness and cultural relativity to students in the area. The Kingdom, as it’s called locally, is known for beautiful scenery with a low population, even relative to the rest of the state. Social services and employment options tend to be limited, but prospects of moving out of the area are low.

With this context in mind, we had spent the previous two weeks preparing our presentations. Trained by Kristen Mullins, director of the Language in Motion program on campus, we all based the presentations in our personal experiences living or studying abroad. The countries in our group included England, Ireland, France, Germany, China, and Cameroon.

As it is with many short service-learning trips, we hit the ground running. Our first afternoon in the Kingdom we presented at Brownington Central School, a K through 8 school with about 15 students per grade. There was a nervous energy among us as we met the principal and were given a tour of the small building; though many of us had worked with kids previously, the prospect of being handed the reins of a classroom either in pairs or solo was still daunting. We didn’t reconvene as a whole group until the school day ended two and a half hours later, but the nervousness had clearly vanished long before that. We shared stories of the students’ perceptiveness, and anecdotes of way the young kids focus on the most unpredictable details that is equal parts lovable and frustrating to a teacher.

Over a homemade dinner, we reflected on our gratitude that the kids were not hesitant to ask questions or show interest in the topics, a “too cool for school” feeling we had expected. We wondered if we would get such an enthusiastic reception at the neighboring Lake Region High School the next day.

IMG_1116Wednesday morning had a similar feeling of anticipation since it was the fullest and least centralized day of the trip. We met with Lake Region guidance counselors before the first class, a conversation that quickly turned towards the respective stereotypes the students have of internal cliques, foreigners, and often themselves. Though this knowledge made our presentation topics feel even more relevant, it gave us a pause to consider how we’d be received.

Much like Tuesday afternoon at the Brownington, we were collectively surprised at the level of the kids’ engagement. By second period, word had gotten around that college students were in the building and kids would often enter presentation classrooms and whisper excitedly. We saw little trace of the non-engagement counselors had warned us about; rather, students were very curious about our travels, and enthusiastic participants in simulations and discussions. In some of our most interesting moments, we were able to talk with the students about ways they thought outsiders stereotyped the Kingdom, and use that as a springboard to conversations about cultural relativity. The students brought an energy to activities that was contagious even when our own fatigue began to catch up with us in the afternoon.

Our group met up after the last bell rang with grins on our tired faces. We’d had two early mornings in a row, but the learning wasn’t done yet. We were lodging at the Old Stone House Museum not far from the schools, and the museum director gave us a tour that afternoon. She walked us through the fascinating history of the Old Stone House as a progressive boarding school run by Midd alum, Alexander Twilight, from 1829 to 1847.

 Before driving back to Middlebury on Thursday, we met with the director of the Teen Center at NEKCA (the Northeast Kingdom Community Action association), a hub of local social service providers. In a conversation that was both lively and frank, director Allyson Howell talked to us about the realities of running the Teen Center on a shoestring budget, and the difficulties facing youth in the Kingdom. These included the location as a notorious drug highway from New York City to Canada, homelessness, and rural transportation obstacles.

We each reflected on the trip in different ways. For some, it confirmed that secondary education would be key to their future career path; for others, the exact opposite. For many of us, the trip raised questions about how we can engage with a new community in such a short time and allow learning about experience living in the Kingdom to supplement or contradict our background knowledge. For all of us, I think, we appreciated the chance to broaden our view of Vermont from the slice of Addison County that we see regularly. We’re extremely grateful to all the people on campus who made this trip a reality, and for the students and educators we met for their patience, enthusiasm, and willingness to share a moment of their lives with us.”

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Learn more about Middlebury Alternative Breaks Trips at go/MAlt and about the Language in Motion program at go/LiM.

 

Alison Haas ’16, CE Communicatiosn Intern

What Happens When 50+ MiddKids Go on MAlt Trips

This past February break, six groups of Middlebury students escaped the wintry Vermont weather, traveling as many as 3,000 miles to six respective locations around the globe. Middlebury Alternative Break Trips, affectionately referred to as MAlt trips, are service-oriented experiential-learning trips. This year the 50+ MAlt participants traveled to Guatemala, Washington DC, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Miami, and New York City, and addressed issues ranging from permaculture to privilege and poverty in vastly diverse local communities.

“The trip was eye-opening and life-changing […] I intend to try to lead a MAlt trip myself, motivated by how powerful and influential and rewarding this trip has been,” one MAlt Washington DC participant said.

Returning to campus, many students remarked that their MAlt trip has left an enduring mark on them.

Another student who participated in the Building Communities trip in Guatemala, working with Constru Casa and Tecnologia Para Salud (TPS), noted that “[…] it was more than I ever imagined and will have lasting impact on me. It taught me the power of active learning. Moreover, it taught me that it is not enough to be ‘book smart’.”

As students reflected on their rich experiences and personal growth, they also explored the ethics of service and development work. What role does service play in a community? How can we responsibly contribute to a community that is not our own? What is sustainable service and development? How can we unpack our own privilege in relation to certain communities based on identities of race, class, gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on? How can we best learn from each other?

Read on: MAlt participants will answer these questions, explain the ins and outs of travel in-country and abroad, talk small group dynamics and new friendships, and tell of the challenges and lasting benefits of volunteerism and service.

Over the course of their trips these Middkids kept quite busy. Elsa Avarado ’18 of MAlt Miami, a group that worked at a schools, wrote in, “Some of the projects that we did for the school included: spreading wood chips all over the playground, re-planting the garden, etc. Our days were very packed.”

Dylan Gilbert and Mariam Khan, both class of 2017, wrote about their trip to Mexico and the opportunity it afforded an unlikely group of students to get to know each other. Dylan Gilbert is an Art History and Russian double major from St. Peters, Missouri and Mariam Khan is a student of Math, Religion, and Education Studies from Waterville, Maine.

They wrote, “MAlt trips really have the ability to bring together a variety of students from across campus that would most likely never intersect otherwise. Our trip was no different. We had an extremely diverse group of 12 students (including us). Every class year was represented. Majors ranged from Physics to Art History to Women and Gender Studies to Math, and even geographically our participants came from all over the United States and even the world. All of our participants were exceptional individuals that each contributed their own unique perspective and experiences to the group dynamic.”

Dylan, Mariam, and other MAlt Mexico participants also reflected upon certain challenges that the group faced, from linguistic capabilities to the politics of international tourism.

“In addition to working with children at the daycare, our group also explored issues of inequality and poverty in San Miguel de Allende, a town known for its expat communities and tourism. Our goal was the offer a caring hand to Casa and a critical eye to privilege as we engaged in our work at the center […] Not everyone on our trip knew Spanish, which was challenging but encouraging since everyone was still able to engage equally […] The town of San Miguel itself has a problematic history with tourism and expats, and through this trip, we were able to observe and analyze the complex nature of the community while still recognizing our own role in the broader narrative of San Miguel. Overall, our experiences in San Miguel de Allende provided able opportunity to physically engage with our work and each other and also to better understand the effects of tourism on the local populations of San Miguel.”

Similar to the reflections of MAlt Mexico participants, a MAlt Puerto Rico participant noted that, “This trip was useful in informing me on culturally-appropriate service abroad.” This learning, however, certainly came with challenges, even if small ones. On the MAlt Miami trip, for instance, showering at night in an outdoor shower and staying in a low-income neighborhood posed an adjustment for some of the participants.

As far as community partners goes, the reviews of the Middkids were extremely positive. Jessica Towers of DC Central Kitchen worked with the Washington DC trip focusing on issues of privilege and poverty. She said, “The Middlebury students that came to work with us were awesome! They were friendly, helpful, and hardworking.” Community partner Cale Johnson of Casa de los Angeles, a non-profit in Mexico that provides a safe haven for single mothers and their children, writes, “We were really pleased and impressed with all of the students in the group. They came willing and enthusiastic to help and as such left a great impact on our organization.”

The students in turn expressed their appreciation for the community partners and organizations with whom they worked. MAlt Miami wrote in, “I would most definitely recommend ICO to other MAlt leaders because they truly made us feel welcome and they were so grateful for our help. Even though we were so grateful to be part of the team!” MAlt Puerto Rico also chimed in, “Working with Plenitud was a very symbiotic relationship.”

Indeed, many trip-goers said they would recommend the organizations they worked with to future MAlt participants. Despite the challenges they encountered, participants found that they made a difference in and learned from the communities they served thanks to moments of reflection, communication, and hard work. In the words of one MAlt Guatemala participant, “Service is possible by team work and willingness to learn.”

So, what do you say? Will you be next? Will a life-changing MAlt trip be part of your 2016 or 2017?

Learn more about Middlebury Alternative Break Trips at go/malt and view photos from this year’s trips on Facebook.

 

~Alison Haas ’16, CE Communications Intern

William Weightman on his 2015 Summer Internship

William Weightman presenting his research findings on VET to Stanford and Shaanxi Normal University faculty and researchers.

William Weightman presenting his research findings on VET to Stanford and Shaanxi Normal University faculty and researchers.

William received funding for his internship from the The Cross Cultural Community Service Fund (CCCS), which supports international community service, advocacy, and activism.

 

This summer I spent four weeks working with Stanford University’s Rural Education Action Program (REAP) as a research intern. REAP is an impact evaluation organization that aims to inform sound education, health and nutrition policy in China. Their goal is to help improve the lives of the millions of people by developing their human capital and overcoming obstacles to education so that they can escape poverty and better contribute to China’s developing economy.

As a part of the REAP research team I worked on their project evaluating China’s vocational education and training (VET) programs. There is a widespread belief at the upper echelons of China’s political decision-making bodies that VET is a way to give poor, rural students the skills they need for future employment. However, research has shown that VET has not been an effective tool for improving students’ economic outcomes. Not only are they learning less than their peers in academic high schools, but also many are regressing in basic skills like Chinese language and math. As a summer intern, I spent two weeks conducting field interviews with VET students and dropouts in China and another two weeks writing a paper incorporating quantitative and qualitative analysis to submit to academic journals and the Chinese Academy of Sciences—and ideally impact policy.

When someone mentions China, images of rapid development and growing prosperity frequently come to mind. Indeed, in the last 30 years China has made rapid improvements and its urban centers and infrastructure rival much of the developed world. However, in the rural parts of China far away from the developed coastal regions, millions of people continue to live in abject poverty with little hope of partaking in the advantages of China’s burgeoning growth.

It is often easy to think of economic development in abstract terms. Numbers such as GDP per capita and spending on infrastructure are important indicators. However, my experience working with REAP made me realize the important role that education and human capital play in economic development. Quality education is essential for any country to succeed. After meeting the kids that are enrolled in VET programs, it became clear to me that they are not receiving a quality education. Three main themes emerged in our interviews: first, students have low expectations for their ability to gain from VET and thus little motivation to learn; second, the schooling system is characterized by a complete lack of accountability for students to learn, engage in appropriate behavior, or stay in school; finally, the vocational education system leaves opportunities for schools to take advantage of their students for pecuniary gain through recruitment, illegal fees, and internships that benefit the school more than the student.

It became apparent to me that the educational opportunities needed to improve the lives of poor, rural students in China are not available in the current educational system. Integrating poor, rural students into an effective educational system is essential to China’s ability to make growth inclusive. If one hopes to create economic growth and development and fairness in a country, it is essential that the educational system help the least-advantaged members of that society.

-William Weightman ’17

Maeve on Juntos

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When people ask me what I do with our compañero, I tell them honestly that we just chat. As part of the Juntos Compañeros program, two other Middlebury students and I go to visit a farmworker named Gustavo every Friday for a couple of hours. I often get some confused looks and uncertainty about what the purpose behind “just chatting” is.
Sometimes we practice English words and phrases and work on specific things like communicating with staff at the bank or post office to send money back to his hometown in Tabasco, Mexico. Other times we will talk about the movie he was just watching on his “dia de descanso” (rest day) and get into a conversation about pop culture, television shows, and our favorite fútbol (soccer) teams. Most of the time though, the conversation slips into how he is doing day to day. If he’s warm enough when he goes out to milk in the early morning in the winter. If his employer has increased his payment above minimum wage at all. Gustavo puts a face to the issue. As an undocumented migrant farmworker in Vermont he works long untraditional hours, he is paid low wages, and he suffers hard conditions on a family dairy farm.

We are by no means solving the issues that Gustavo faces by just chatting. We are not confronting the crisis of immigration. We are not doing anything that would be published in the newspaper as revolutionary engagement in the community, but I think our little nuggets of conversation in broken English and Spanish provide some form of companionship and insight for both of us. It’s fun to talk about soccer and TV and our favorite foods. It’s two hours for Gustavo that don’t revolve around the farm’s milking schedule and two hours for us that don’t revolve around squeezing in lunch at Proctor between class and meetings. Just chatting lets us all take a break and just exist with one another for a while. It’s not the structural change that’s needed with immigration, but it feels like a little baby step to creating solidarity and a partnership across difference.

 

– Maeve Moynihan ’17

Fredy on MAlt in Ferguson

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Below is a reflection from Fredy Rosales ’17, a student who took part in the Ferguson Alternative Spring Break Trip. Fredy was awarded a Community Engagement Mini-Grant to attend the trip.

As I bend down to pick up a fugitive piece of trash from the road in North Florissant Rd in Ferguson, Missouri, I try to observe and absorb the reality of this environment and my situation. It’s not what I expected. I don’t mind the physical work even after an exhausting day of traveling, because after all, I knew my Ferguson Alternative Spring Break was a service trip, but I wonder if this is the best way to help the movement and specifically chaos-invaded Ferguson. I also wonder why this place is so similar to my home town. When will we see the riots, protests and chaos that the media so insistently portrays? Where are the burning buildings? The streets closed by police or by activists? I’m sure many of the other college students with me are wondering the same, but it is not until later in the day, after having indeed seen some destroyed buildings, that we really start to make sense of the reality of Ferguson: it’s just like any other suburban town in the country, at least on the surface.

Throughout the rest of the week we learn more about the reality of Ferguson. We learn more details about the Police Department’s racial profiling and over-policing. We learn about the problems with the local judiciary system, the political scene, and the constant struggle that people of color go through every day in this community. But more importantly, we learn from the community members and activists. During one of our community service activities we ride the metro and converse with people. We learn that it is unsafe for two black men to walk together on the street, because they might “fit the description.” We learn about families that have been broken up by accusations without realistic evidence from the police. We learn that people feel afraid of the police. But still this place feels too normal. By the end of the week we had all learned and confirmed that Ferguson is not an exception to the norm in the country –it is the norm. Things like this happen to people of color everyday all around the States. The Ferguson Police Department was just one that “got caught”, but the media insists in depicting this as an isolated issue–it only happens there. It’s sad to think that the media has found some success in influencing the general public.

But the positive, valuable lessons that I took from my experience in Ferguson outweigh the negative ones. One such lesson I learned was the power of effective organization to affect real change and I witnessed first hand through Operation Help or Hush.Operation Help Or Hush. In only a matter of months, the organizations’ co-founders, activists Tasha Burton and Charles Wades, along with many collaborators, have implemented a series of programs that are already changing Ferguson, and that are cementing the bases to further long term changes. These programs include a Transitional Housing Program (which evolved from their earlier work to provide safe-stays for activists) that provides safe housing for those struggling financially free of charge for 90 days; Ferguson Food Share which provides several low income families with healthy food; funding the Faces of the Movement initiative; and of course, the Ferguson Alternative Spring Break which for 5 weeks brought together college students from all over the country to learn more about and support the movement. When you consider that OHOH has only existed for less than 9 months, and that it started with a twitter campaign to raise funds, their accomplishments become all the more impressive, and their story quite inspiring.
And inspired we were. During my week in Ferguson I met many intelligent civic-minded college students that were eager to apply what they had learned in Ferguson in their own communities. I think that one of OHOH biggest successes during this program was that they transformed us in a way that sent us as waves throughout the country, as sparkles willing to ignite to change our communities. (Many were already planning to organize ways to address issues such as over-policing before they had even left Ferguson). More importantly, they created a network of individuals who no longer saw themselves as “saviors” but as allies willing to work effectively to affect change.

 

-Fredy Rosales ’17

Truman Fellowship winner, Kate

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Kate Hamilton ‘15.5 was one of two bright young women from Middlebury College to win the prestigious Truman Fellowship. The Truman Fellowship recognizes college juniors (or senior Febs) who have been outstanding leaders in public service and are interested public service as a career. The fellowship  grants up to $30,000 toward graduate study in the U.S. or abroad

Community engagement has been an important part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. Growing up in Washington, D.C. and volunteering for a youth service corps called City Year Young Heroes made me aware of difference and privilege at a very young age. But it was only when I was in high school and volunteering for the Obama campaign in Richmond, VA that I realized that the chasms of prejudice and poverty between us also affect our ability to participate in the democratic process. 

Ever since coming to that realization, my primary goal has been to fight disenfranchisement and other barriers to democratic participation. Community Engagement at Middlebury has really helped me pursue that goal on campus by providing invaluable funding and support to MiddVote, which was founded to increase civic participation among Middlebury students. With the help of Community Engagement, MiddVote was able to register nearly 500 Middlebury students to vote this past Fall.  Being a part of MiddVote was a very rewarding experience that made me even more excited to devote my career to fight for all citizens’ voting rights. 

– Kate Hamilton ‘15.5