In the early to mid 1990’s Colleges and universities across the country were establishing volunteer offices as clearinghouses of information. In an effort to respond to the call for serve, we built support structures. At W&M our doors opened in 1994. The process quite simple really, until 2001…soon after 9/11 a new generation of students came crashing through the office doors of volunteer centers and at William and Mary they busted down the doors. Students changed the way we do business and I could not be more impressed.
In late September 2001 Becca Luhrs approached me with the idea of bring students on a Global Village Project adventure. Little did we know that her idea would not only come to fruition but it would be the spark to a huge fire. In November 2007, Jill Piatecheli, the executive director of Breakaway casually commented during a visit to W&M that we have the most international service trips of the approximately 120 schools that are members of the nonprofit organization Breakaway, whose mission is to train, assist, and connect campuses and communities in promoting quality alternative break programs. While the number of programs is impressive, the quality of the experience is the characteristic that is really worth publicizing.
Today many students that are witnessing injustice, poverty, insufficient health care and abuse are returning to William and Mary with a desire to do more and learn more deeply. After making an emotional connection with members of very distinct populations, they return to campus with a desire to learn about a wide array of social concerns from an even more broad array of disciplines. For many, for the first time, their coursework has significance. A business major sees him or herself as a potential social entrepreneur. A sociologist understands why she studies cultures and now has a laboratory.
In busting down the doors of volunteer offices students across the country and frankly with more force at W&M than at just about any other, students were insisting that their learning be dynamic and that it span beyond the confines of the walls. So we responded. And what has unfolded, what is still evolving is what you see today. Programs across Latin America and in African countries that worked toward finding solutions to poverty, hunger, the AIDS epidemic, providing secure housing and asking questions aimed at finding solutions…solutions that we realize will take years, oftentimes decades and more often a lifetime to help solve. But, it is on the dirt paths of the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Honduras and Tanzania that students are emerging as advocates, their interest in scholarship is blossoming, their passion coming into focus. It is in speaking with community members that they are conducting their first qualitative research, tinkering with enthnography and considering the role of the anthropologist, the doctor, the sociologist, the pastor and often for the first time seeing themselves fitting into a role. At night when the light is dim, the low hanging moon providing the brightest spotlight, students discuss the challenges they faced and the manner in which they might respond. It is in these moments, on a work site, alongside community members, with their peers and beside their advisors that they are making meaning of their life. They are finding purpose.
At the end of this leg of life’s journey we want every student to have been challenged to think bigger, to dig deeper into his or her soul, to fight for something they believe in, and to have the skills – both academic and humanistic – to approach life’s challenges –near and far- with grit and determination. They do too. They busted down our doors to make sure we are listening.