Viewpoint by Christine Adam — Alternative Spring Break offers rich learning environment

February reading week is usually one that I reserve for quiet catching up on things left undone over the previous six weeks of teaching. This year, however, I had the honour of joining 26 Carleton students and staff on Alternative Spring Break (ASB) in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

The students came from various disciplines across the faculties of Arts and Social Sciences and Public Affairs. We also benefitted from the hard work of two peer helpers in the First Year Experience Office (FYEO): Jennifer Mongrain, a bachelor of science student and, Sarah Chown, a bachelor of public affairs and policy management student.

Joe Lipsett coordinates community service learning and leadership development in the FYEO and did an impressive job of getting things in place in the short time that he had been working in the position. We were joined by Ryan Mullally from Learning Support Services, whose Spanish-speaking skills and knowledge of Mexican culture made him the go-to guy during the week for everything from how to ask for water, to how to cheer appropriately at a Lucha Libre (Mexican wrestling) match.

The staff at the Cuernavaca Center for Intercultural Dialogue on Development (CCIDD) had planned a week that included workshops on poverty, immigration and social justice movements; activities that got us out in the city applying what we had learned and, most importantly, service projects in a 50-year-old squatter camp where we hand-mixed and poured cement in two families’ homes.

I wanted to join this group for many reasons, but the primary one was to spend time with a group of students who wanted to learn outside the traditional environment of the university. There were no course credits attached to this experience. We did not provide incentives through reading reports, pop quizzes, participation marks or exams. That said, what I found was a rich environment in which the students demonstrated a keen desire to learn. The learning itself was diverse – in both goals and starting points. Regardless, they all turned to each other as resources for their learning. The interdisciplinary nature of the conversations that arose in the common areas after we returned from a lecture or a day of service was unlike any I had encountered before. The students were amazing in their analytic skills, their humour, their generosity and their connectedness to the world.

What did I learn?

  • That our students are more than willing (desperate, in fact) to apply their real life experiences to the content of their courses;
  • that those experiences often include their own and their families’ triumphs over adversity;
  • that rich multidisciplinary conversations are possible among undergraduate students;
  • that listening is one of the best things we can do to promote dialogue with and among students; and,
  • that students’ confidence can develop by leaps and bounds when we put them in ambiguous situations with supportive peers and trust them to figure things out.

It is not an exaggeration to claim that ASB transformed a number of the students. I observed students question their own privileged upbringings, their textbooks, their choices of majors, their career plans and their worldviews. At our closing event on the Friday night, the students spoke eloquently about how the week had changed them and what they would do to continue their learning. I too must think about this. My first step is to identify how to implement more dialogue, more trust and more connection to lived experiences in the classroom. To not do so would be to disrespect my amazing ASB teachers and all that I learned during that wonderful week in February.

Christine Adam is the Assistant Dean (First-Year Programs), Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

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