Student Service Break project
I gained a great deal of program planning experience last year as the staff coordinator for the student service break program. The group was student run and lead and was expanding to include two separate service projects, which was creating several new challenges. The first challenge was marketing the program effectively. When only one project had been offered it had been rather easy to use word of mouth from previous participants and members of the larger campus service organization to fill slots. This time we needed to fill a whole other trip and therefore used table tents in the Memorial Union and dining halls as well as a Barometer ad to add to the applicant pool. In an effort to plan for future growth, I suggested marketing the trips to other campus groups who might be interested in volunteer work including Greek life, student government, and particular academic units (social work, environmental studies, etc.).
One of the greatest challenges that I faced was when I realized that some of the expectations of the students in the program were unrealistic and did not resonate with the goals of the program. When planning the new service project several repeat participants came in with an expectation that they would be working in the health care setting and going to Canada. It quickly became apparent that this was going to be an impossible project to create and it fell on me and a student leader to articulate our difficulties to the group. Ultimately we were able to fall back on the mission of the student service break program to provide services to those who need it most, not those who the group wants to help or those who live in an area the group wants to visit. This experience taught me that it is important to have a clear mission that can be used to explain hard decisions to students and other stakeholders.
One of my responsibilities as a supervisor of the group was to create service learning programming for both trip to engage in before leaving on their service projects. I had to decide what types of topics students should reflect upon before serving along with what hard and soft skills I wanted them to have before they left. I had to balance these needs with the limited amounts of time we had to get everyone together and the resources I had available. In the end there were three separate service learning meetings prior to the trips. During the first session, the group watched an episode of 30 Days by Morgan Spurlock and then reflected on the challenges that Morgan and his partner experienced living on minimum wage. We talked about the plethora of social problems that contribute to homelessness and about the misconceptions that people have about people who are homeless. During our second meeting, I had Team Liberation come in and do some activities to help the groups start the team building process and learn tips for doing reflections while on project. I also gave both groups the opportunity to spend time talking about the things they were most excited about and most anxious about and how they planned to handle conflicts on the trip. The last service learning activity I wanted to coordinate was a service project at Stone Soup. The students would have spent half a day volunteering at the soup kitchen, which would have given them a chance to get to know one another in a work environment, practice their reflection activities and have first-hand exposure to some of the social issues they would invariably see on their projects. Ultimately, time grew short and I was unable to work this activity into the pre-trip program. It was at this time that I realized how valuable students’ time is and that it is one of the most important resources to consider when creating programs.
In the end, I was very happy with the programming I created. At times I wished that it had been more structured, but I also realize the value in letting the students guide the discussions; they were the ones going on the program and they needed to have a large say in what they got out of the pre-trip sessions. I gauged the effectiveness of the project by the fact that both groups had safe, successful trips. The sponsors at both sites were happy with the services the students provided and the students were happy with the tasks they had done. Both groups planned post-trip activities and it seemed like many of them were already contemplating doing the program again the next year.