The Oberlin Stories Project

On coordinating alternative spring break trips

Sylvia Woodmansee ’15

“I appreciate the drive of everyone in the IYS leader group and their willingness to continue reflecting and moving forward with our ideas and work. ”

Six people walk across a road in single file.

My earliest memories of Oberlin are of social anxiety, self-doubt, and confusion. Coming from a town of 500, growing up literally in the middle of the woods, attending a large rural public high school and having few peers who left the state, I had limited social experience and a very narrow understanding of the possibilities that existed in the world. Needless to say, I did not participate in the typical first semester first year social scene. If it had not been for one high school teacher I never would have heard of Oberlin, and during much of my first semester I doubted I had made the right choice. Everyone was so passionate and articulate and worldly. But also people were just so WEIRD.

Fast forward to second semester of my first year. It was spring break time, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Going home wasn’t an option—it was too expensive. I didn’t want to stay at Oberlin because it seemed like EVERYONE had plans. I had heard about a group of students who organized alternative break trips, so I decided to apply. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Immerse Yourself in Service is a student organization that coordinates alternative fall and spring break service trips to various locations across the country. It consists of a core group of ten or so leaders who organize and lead these trips. It is open to anyone and offers need-blind financial aid. While not a perfect organization—like all student organizations, IYS needs to be constantly reworked and critically examined—the leader cohort aims to discuss what doing service means, maintain connections with sites, and provide participants with context and history before going on the trips.

I ended up going to Lynch, Kentucky. With limited travel experience, going to a new part of the country was exciting. The two trip leaders had experience in the Appalachian region and had developed relationships and projects in the community. Many nights were spent staying up in the living room of the house we were staying in, talking about our backgrounds, our hopes, about the context we were in, what we were doing here in Appalachia, religion and much else. We laughed and were distraught together. We saw many beautiful things and people together. We had lots of fun as well as lots of intense discussions. Back in a rural area, I felt the presence of home. In the week we spent together, I made friends who I remain close to. When our group returned to Oberlin, we had weekly reunions on Wednesdays at the ’Sco for Splitchers, which helped maintain the community we had formed during the trip.

Through this experience, I matured a lot and finally felt that I could express myself in a context where people would listen and try to understand where I was coming from. I began to realize that I did have a voice and could contribute to conversations and the formation of ideas. I became an IYS leader, which has been one of my major extracurricular activities at Oberlin. I have led trips to New Orleans and Detroit, and while they did not always go as I had planned or hoped, I strive to nourish a similar community among the participants to that which I experienced in Kentucky. I try to hold group reflections in the evenings that often lead to larger conversations. I also try to leave space to laugh, get to know each other, and cook together. I work with our partnership organizations to plan activities that will allow participants to gain greater context for the region we are in as well. I appreciate the drive of everyone in the IYS leader group and their willingness to continue reflecting and moving forward with our ideas and work.

Indirectly because of my decision to go to Kentucky, I was introduced to the Bonner Center and became a Bonner Leader. The Bonner Leader program allows students to participate in civic engagement while at Oberlin, offering a stipend at the end of the term. While college-town relationships are far from good, I feel I have a much better sense of Lorain County, as well as the issues and barriers between the college and town, after participating in this program. It is another place where I have found community at Oberlin, and a group of people willing to constantly challenge themselves to be both critical and reflective.

Being in Oberlin is not always easy, especially if you are from an underrepresented background. However, it is the people who make the place, and there are many incredible people here committed to creative and meaningful things. There are amazing opportunities and fun to be had. The friendships I have formed through organizations and trips I have been a part of, as well as life in general, have allowed me to grow, become more confident, and begin to develop a consciousness of working toward reflection and critical engagement with my academics and place in society. My understanding of society has greatly expanded and I have learned how to relax and have fun. Many people at Oberlin are willing to talk, to listen, to be real with you, to challenge you, and to explore with you. This is what my first IYS trip taught me: Putting myself out there means that I will meet many great people who will be there for me and will teach me a lot—in many cases, more than academic classes.