The VOLbreaks program through the Jones Center for Leadership and Service gives students the opportunity to spend their spring or fall break making new friends, creating lasting memories, and serving communities across the country.
This year, eight teams traveled to eight different locations where they partnered with local organizations to engage in a variety of community service activities. Each trip was inspired by a central theme such as environmental sustainability, food insecurity, and wealth inequality.
Melissa Goldberg, special projects coordinator for the Division of Student Life, supported a student-led trip in Naples, Florida, where students worked with community partners to aid in environmental conservation efforts. Over the course of their trip, the group worked on projects such as cleaning up educational nature trails, creating shell bags to use in an oyster reef restoration project in Naples Bay, and performing exotic species removal on Big Cypress National Preserve. Goldberg said these experiences made a lasting impact on her students.
Xylina Marshall, communications coordinator for the Honors and Scholars Program, supported a team of students that traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, to aid local organizations that fight food insecurity.
Here, Goldberg and Marshall talk about the lasting impact of the trips:
What were the most meaningful parts of your trip?
Goldberg: The most meaningful part of this trip was the students developing a sense of agency, empowerment, and understanding around environmental issues.
The students also realized that by working together, they were able to make a meaningful impact.As they interacted with different community partners, the students quickly started seeing connections between the issues the region was facing and how they corresponded with issues we are experiencing in Knoxville and beyond.
Marshall: The most meaningful parts were the learning opportunities students had at Footprint Farms and at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. The community partner at the farm really illustrated the connection that food insecurity, specifically in majority black cities and regions, had on Mississippi’s cultural history. The Civil Rights Museum staff gave an historical perspective on persistent problems in the city but also a future outlook that allowed students to see paths forward.
What skills did participants gain?
Goldberg: Their ability to work as a team, to get to know and support people of backgrounds different from their own, and how to consider their own identities and privilege when considering and approaching social problems. They also learned to identify common exotic species in Southwest Florida, most notably the infamous rosary pea.
Marshall: Critical thinking, conflict management, respectful discourse, and a better understanding of the forces that shaped the development of the United States.
They also learned a lot about planting food and maintaining community gardens.
How will participating in these trips benefit students in their ongoing college experience or future jobs?
Goldberg: These students have a deeper understanding of the relationship between human behaviors and environmental problems. Studying environmental issues in Southwest Florida provides a critical lesson in the harm that can be caused by growth without consideration of the long-term impacts. They also saw the importance of volunteer work, collaboration, and community partnerships.
Marshall: Working in a full-time collaborative environment will strongly benefit their ability to work in a team and respect differing opinions and viewpoints.
The ability to actively participate and contribute a discussion in which not everyone agrees or there is no “right answer” will help them in both their classes and careers to come.
What’s your advice for students considering a future VOLbreaks trip?
Goldberg: Don’t hesitate. Even though most members of a group don’t know one another beforehand, they all become incredibly close on the trip.
The trip leaders make a point to ensure all in the group are included and supported. Not one of our students complained about spending time out of their comfort zone, and in fact, they really enjoyed the more challenging aspects of the service we completed. I can tell this was a transformational and fun experience for every student who participated.
Marshall: Being gone for spring break isn’tas long of a time as it seems. By the time the trip ends, you feel like you’ve just begun. Also, there is some time to do homework, so don’t stress too much about getting behind.
In addition to these trips, teams visited Atlanta; New Orleans; Chicago; Washington, DC; Charleston, South Carolina; Moab, Utah; and Jacksonville, Florida. Visit the Center for Leadership and Service’s website to learn more about VOLbreaks or to get involved.