Book Learning Meets the Real World
By the numbers, Willamette's Take a Break program adds up to 26 trips, 11 states, 439 volunteers -- and 18,438 volunteer hours, all of them squeezed into spring and winter breaks when most students are off having "fun."
The student-run program promotes social action and compassionate outreach, and gives students a firsthand look at issues they may have known only from classroom discussions: homelessness, poverty, crime, hunger, violence, environmental destruction and marginalization of people.
"Signing up was easy," says Megan Bay '08 about the winter break she spent in Kenner, La., "but this trip turned out to be one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. We've all seen pictures of houses that Katrina destroyed, but pictures can only tell part of the story."
Pictures, Bay says, can't explain the overwhelming odor of decay that permeated the houses where they worked. Pictures don't show the black mold and cockroaches that moved in after the hurricane left. And pictures can't describe the pain caused by each wedding picture or beloved toy, destroyed.
"Beneath all of this hurt and frustration is a city fighting hard to return," Bay says. "New Orleans will haunt me for the rest of my life, but the key is to not allow this experience to torture me, but use it instead to fuel my compassion.
"It's easy to be so focused on our own issues. It's all about my classes, my grades, my papers. In a way, college can be very egocentric. This program reminds us to look beyond our everyday experiences and get out of our comfort zone, to broaden our perspective."
Seeing how the media represented the situation in New Orleans as opposed to experiencing it firsthand, Bay learned to question sources and be open to other views of the situation. "I learned to be more analytical," she says. "Now, even when I am reading textbooks for my classes, I remember that it is someone's perspective."
Graduate Alex Compton '06 took his Take a Break experience back into the lab, then into his professional pursuits beyond graduation. "I planned an extracurricular activity with some professors at Louisiana State University while I was down there," he says of his Katrina trip. "As a biology major, I was interested in knowing what scientists there were researching."
He was particularly interested in the extensive mold contamination that plagued thousands of flooded houses, and LSU professors provided him with materials and guidance for a senior project that utilized mold spore samples from all of the houses he helped remediate.
"Thanks to that experience, I solidified my interests in microbiology and converted them into an independent research project," he says. He now works as a post-baccalaureate research fellow at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., studying how certain HIV-positive individuals control viral replication and never experience the immune system failure associated with AIDS.
Students, professors and staff have worked side by side in the Take a Break program for six years now, fanning out across the country with a belief that real life experience informs classroom discussions and that book learning is best when accompanied by hammers and nails, stories read to children, and meals served to the homeless.