Each fall and spring break some students forgo a more traditional break and instead choose to spend their time serving and learning from another community as part of Oberlin’s Immerse Yourself in Service (IYS) program. The program’s mission is to challenge the idea that community service is not for everyone, promote the idea of active citizenship, and build bridges between people of diverse backgrounds and distinct faiths and ideologies. In the past students have visited New Orleans, Kentucky, West Virginia, and South Dakota. This year, one group of students visited Maryville, Tennessee, while another visited Detroit.
Philip Lundquist, civic engagement graduate intern at the Bonner Center for Service and Learning, has helped coordinate the IYS trips this year. He says students can learn about themselves and their values by taking part in an alternative break trip. “Students gain an immersive experience for service. This means they have a greater understanding of the local area, its histories, and its needs. They are able to reflect on their experiences and apply what they are learning to their academic experiences.”
Aaron Appel, a fourth-year politics and law and society major, got involved with IYS his first semester. This fall was his fifth trip with IYS. A native of Troy, Michigan, Appel travelled just a few miles from his hometown to lead a trip to Auntie Na’s House, a community outreach center in west-side Detroit.
“Na's family has been living in the house for seven generations, and now she spends her time providing food, water, clothing, shelter, books, music, and love for the children in her neighborhood,” Appel says. “She's dedicated to, as she says, bringing the ‘unity back into the community,’ and accepts all who pass through her doors.”
Auntie Na is looking to expand her outreach program into “Auntie Na’s Village,” which would incorporate tutoring programs, an expanded urban garden, the acquisition of neighboring vacant lots for shelter and work programs, and more. For the past two years, Oberlin students have been organizing with her on their breaks and throughout the semester to make this a reality, and Auntie Na has come to campus to speak to students. Appel says this trip was part of a larger organizing structure called Auntie Na's Harvesting Unity, which seeks to support Na in her vision, fulfilling tasks as she directs.
While working with Na, Appel says the group was able to strike a balance between pre-planned projects and students on the trip “applying their souls to the land”— one of Auntie Na’s mantras. The groups helped create a haunted trail for Halloween, repaired bikes, built the infrastructure for a shed, painted several murals, created a stage and music set-up downstairs, networked with several Detroit-area organizations, and learned about how to create a nonprofit.
Some of the most memorable moments from the trip for Appel were quiet ones. “Moments that stood out to me were simply watching the team connect with each other, with Na, and with the children and adults who frequent Na's house. There were music lessons and collaborations on painting and fixing bikes. The shed was mostly the product of hard work by two community regulars, Robert and Mr. Zeke. I would find myself sitting back as the team worked diligently at Na's, or simply laughed with one another while preparing meals, and be incredibly excited for the work to come.”
The idea of “work to come” is a central part of the IYS experience. Appel says he hopes IYS trips lead students to consider long-term actions and support. “I hope that the students on this trip gained an understanding of the history and current context of Detroit; a sense of proximity with Na, her community, and her work; and a desire to remain a part of the Auntie Na's Harvesting Unity structure for some time to come because this is where the long-term solidarity work takes place.”