Students experience "alternate" breaks

When Nadine Lippa blew her nose last week, it wasn't because she was upset for the end of spring break. Congested after cleaning the bathroom ceiling in an Appalachian home, the first-year materials science engineering major experienced something unexpected when she cleared her nasal passages.

"My nose expelled bat droppings," she said.

Lippa's batty experience occurred while helping to renovate a home in McDowell County, West Virginia last week as part of the Alternative Spring Break Experience (ASBE). M. Shernell Smith, coordinator of student development and housefellow for New House, took six students to the country's fifth poorest county to give service where they felt it was sorely needed.

Working on the opposite side of Smith's office in the Office of Student Development, Mohana Rajakumar also arranged a service project over spring break. However, Rajakumar spent the week on the opposite side of the world.

Coordinator of Student Development and a Housefellow for Morewood E Tower, Rajakumar organized a trip to India to work with orphans of the December tsunami. Rajakumar brought a few friends, a photographer with the Associated Press, and Meghan Laskowski, a junior computer science major and leadership intern in the Office of Student Development.

Originally from India, Rajakumar knows the founders of an orphanage that houses students who lost one or both parents in the December tsunami. Rajakumar planned the visit on an individual basis and solicited private donations to fund the trip.

Meanwhile, her coworker Smith planned ASBE in conjunction with Student Development Office and the Office of International Education. As Smith brainstormed ideas of places to take her students, she knew she wanted it to be a rural experience. When she came across the Big Creek People in Action, Inc., she knew she found her spring break destination.

"When you think of people in need, you think minority. I wanted [the students] to be exposed to poverty in a different way," Smith said.

Spending a week in McDowell County, West Virginia, was a completely different experience from that of Rajakumar's in India. Group members quickly got rid of preconceived ideas of the citizens in the county. "I went there expecting the people to be hicks, but they weren't. These people were proud of who they are. They may not have money, but they have things that people here don't," Lippa said.

Mingi Kim, a junior majoring in business administration and modern languages, agreed. "You go in with your preconceived notions of what it is to be successful and happy," she said. "But they were happy where they were."

During the week, the group renovated the interior of a dilapidated five-person family house. Among its projects for the house, the group repaired plumbing, replaced a sink, and cleaned bat droppings out of the ceiling. According to several group members, the father of the family stayed quiet and reserved during much of the week, but on the last day shrugged off his pride and said thank you for the first time in a way that touched everyone on the trip.

"It wasn't just that we fixed up their house," said Gautam Daswani, a first-year business major. "It wasn't just a physical thing. It was also a mental thing. That look on his face when he said thank you ? it hit me really hard."

Having a choice between going on the service experience and going to Panama City with his friends, Daswani chose the West Virginia destination. According to Daswani, the community's hospitality assured him that he made the right choice. "Even though they were all white, they were so cordial that I didn't feel any racial differences," said Daswani, who is of Indian descent but lives in Hong Kong. "It was amazing."

Smith agrees. "The service was reciprocal. They [students] learned so much from the people in this community."

In addition to the service project, Smith made certain that the group became immersed in the community's culture. They visited a mine exhibition to gain an understanding of the area's economic history and the lifestyle in a mining community.

Comprised of several international students, the group also shared their own cultural backgrounds with the town by giving a multi-cultural talk to elementary school students.

While Smith's group talked to elementary students in West Virginia, Rajakumar's group spent spring break working with orphaned children half a world away.

Rajakumar arranged for one of her friends, an elementary school teacher in Florida, to partner the Florida school with the Indian orphanage. "The plan is for the school in the States ... to partner with the orphanage to help these children know that they are loved, cared for, and that others in the world want to know about them and care for them," she said.

According to Rajakumar, the 30 kids in the orphanage are fairly well-adjusted now. However, she feels the effect of the December wave will hit them when they're older, especially the girls who, in Indian culture, depend on their parents to broker marriage.

Laskowski recounted the stories that the older kids told of their experience after the tsunami. "You could see in their face that it was still painful, yet they would try to hide it with a smile. And five minutes later, they'd go hang out with their friends and act like the children that they were," she said.

The group also saw a mass burial ground for 300 victims of the disaster and a beach still scattered with tsunami debris. "It's so hard to comprehend," Laskowski said.

"It was overwhelming — coming back was hard. Now it's like 'what's next?''" Rajakumar said.

According to Rajakumar and Smith, planning long-term partnerships is next. Rajakumar hopes to return to the orphanage with a group this summer.

As for the members of the ASBE, Smith says they hope to form a partnership with the Big Creek People in Action community center, possibly adopting the technology room in the center.