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Students Change Lives—Including Their Own—Through Fall Break Service Trips

Oct. 22, 2012

By Erich Burnett

Students grow closer through their work with IYS.

As the calendar gives way to fall break at Oberlin, many students retreat home for the week or bask in the joys of autumnal Ohio without the usual burden of essays and exams.

But dozens of others use their time off to take part in community service projects, often in Oberlin’s own backyard—and sometimes in more far-flung locales.

On October 20 and 21, four groups consisting of 14 Obies each were dispatched to Kentucky, West Virginia, New Orleans, and Detroit as part of Oberlin’s Immerse Yourself in Service (IYS) initiative. They’re spending their fall break leading projects including home repair, tutoring, and gardening.

Founded in 2006, IYS is dedicated to promoting community involvement and awareness of those in need and to encourage others to do the same. In other words: to “think outside the bubble” of Oberlin, as the group’s organizers like to say.

“I hate to use these words, but it was life-changing,” says second-year student Sylvia Woodmansee of Vermont, whose first experience with IYS came on a mission to Kentucky in the spring. “It was an area of the country that I’d never been to before, and I really got the opportunity to bond with a lot of people that I hadn’t even known before the trip.” Now an IYS veteran, Woodmansee is a student leader for the current New Orleans expedition.

Though the concept for IYS grew out of a 2005 service project in New Jersey, it took hold a few months later, as a devastating storm lowered its wrath on Louisiana and Mississippi.

"When Hurricane Katrina hit, several students went down on their own that fall," says Beth Blissman, director of the Bonner Center for Service and Learning, the campus office that coordinates civic engagement initiatives. "We immediately went to work with interested students to plan a Bonner Center-sponsored service trip for winter term 2006, with nonprofits that provided a safe and meaningful experience."

Out of these winter term efforts IYS took shape, and by spring 2007 the group had broadened its focus to serve other regions across the country. Subsequent missions have included a Native American reservation in South Dakota; impoverished communities in Kentucky, Michigan, and Pennsylvania; return trips to hurricane-ravaged New Orleans and Mississippi; and local projects in Oberlin and surrounding communities near campus.

Today, IYS coordinates trips twice each year, during fall and spring breaks. Students interested in joining a mission are required to fill out an essay-style application form at least one month prior to departure. IYS student leaders evaluate each application blindly, selecting members to join their crews without knowing the names of those they’ve chosen. As the size and scope of IYS’ service has grown through the years, so too has the desire to become involved; sometimes, there are waiting lists to join the effort.

When senior Charlotte Landes found that most of her friends would be heading home from Oberlin for a recent spring break, she opted to take part in an IYS mission to Detroit. At the time, she was simply looking for something to occupy her time; what took place ended up changing her forever. It’s a recurring theme among those involved with the program.

“By the end of the week, I had made friends that [constituted] a significant part of my post-spring break life,” she wrote in an essay featured as part of the college’s We Are Oberlin project. “Many of these friends have since graduated, but the times we shared having just met each other a few weeks, days, and hours ago reminded me what I love about Obies in general. Everyone was open to each experience we encountered, greeting each inevitable trial with a smile, a shrug, and a ‘we'll figure it out.’ We succeeded.”

For more information on community service at Oberlin, click here.

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