Monday, March 9, 2015

Magic and Resilience: Students Take Service Immersion Trip to New Orleans

This reflection was written by Celina Gonzalez ‘12 (pictured top row, far left) who traveled to New Orleans over spring break on a service immersion project back in 2012. Gonzalez majored in liberal studies with a concentration in mathematics, and took part in the teaching credential program for a special education and multiple subject credential.

A group of 11 young, female USD students and three faculty leaders embarked on a service immersion trip to New Orleans for spring break. A service immersion trip is unique such that it incorporates service learning and primarily focuses on creating relationships with people in the community to learn about their culture, their history, and their social justice issues.

My experience, as I am sure many of my group members will agree, is difficult to express in words without losing the authenticity of insight to the concepts we learned and activities in which we participated. However, three words that most effectively capture the essence of the service immersion trip are magical, resilience and kinship.

New Orleans is magical in its richness of music, food, history and second lines (a parade-like festivity), slow-paced comfort, and most importantly its people. The constant tune of the jazz brass bands on street corners provides a rhythm, to which one cannot resist dancing. The second lines demonstrate a community celebration of liveliness, music, food and an opportunity to be part of something larger than oneself. The specialties of the food, nowhere to be found but New Orleans, is part of learning the culture and socializing with people; the food brings the community together.

We experienced a snapshot of the history of New Orleans with a tour of St. Louis Archdiocese Cathedral, a Vietnamese community in East County and the Katrina and Beyond Exhibit in the Louisiana State Museum. The museum, in particular, helped broaden my perspective as I gained insight to personal stories, suffering and the glimmer of hope people retained. The jazz brass bands’ rhythm, the delicious Southern food of po’boy sandwiches, and the history represent New Orleans, but our  trip opened up our minds and our hearts to something beyond these attractions and into the true gem of New Orleans: the people.

A closer look into this magical essence reveals a resilient community with its ability to keep moving forward despite Hurricane Katrina, the loss of loved ones, the frustration caused by injustice and racism, and the violence ever so present in the community. Beyond these challenges, there lies this beauty and hope in the hearts of the people. The people were so willing to share their history and experiences. Each of them recognized how even in what appears to be a devastating situation or when you are ready to quit, something comes into your life that keeps you moving forward.

They share these frustrations but also share so much celebration of life through laughter and gatherings, their history and their desires to improve their community. The bonds of this community (maybe judged as fragile community by outsiders) demonstrate nothing less than strength, courage and love.

The word kinship resonates because our group was not only welcomed into this community with open arms but we too, extended our arms, opened our hearts and our minds to fully engage in these interactions and develop authentic relationships to learn, to love and to try to gain an understanding of New Orleans and its people. We met new people and learned from them as we painted at the Community Book Store (CBC), explored other communities, and developed a mutual trust and understanding. More than ever, we wanted to learn from those in the community and work with them to create a mural that projects the beauty, hope and resilience of the community.

Even within creating the mural, we developed more relationships and participated in a variety of
interactions, some challenging to the group but all the same because we took something away from each contact and experience. By the end, the finished mural and symbols on the outside of the CBC exceeded each of our expectations and projected several messages which depict characteristics of the community and our NOLA group, such as trust, resilience, and community.

We experienced the power and energy that coming together, whether in a small group, within a larger community, and/or a combination of the two can have in creating a representation of a community through shared experiences and interactions. These lessons learned promoted our personal growth as leaders and as a group, for our group dynamic was strengthened as we endured challenges in addition to learning experiences.

Participating in kinship was the heart of of my experience, for the community enriched my life, and in turn, I learned more about myself and my passion for service. Forever in my heart will I have this experience to share with our NOLA group and the people we had the privilege to meet and develop relationships within New Orleans as I continue to live a life of service-learning. I share our experience so that others can recognize the importance of community and service-learning and to provide a glimpse of the wonderful values and beauty the community of New Orleans has to offer.

As part of the NOLA group, I know that we left a part of our hearts in the “work” we did on the mural alongside the community and with the people we met. However, I also recognize that we each brought a part of New Orleans back with us through this shared learning experience which will impact the rest of our lives in unique ways. Learning to take time to see what people and communities have to offer as well as the mutual benefits of giving and receiving are important lessons to remember as we participate in future interactions and community involvement.

It is not only that we gave a part of ourselves to the community, but rather it is that we received more in a variety of ways than we could have ever imagined to give.

— Celina Gonzalez ‘12

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