Student spends Spring Break discovering the rewards of community service

Spring is in the air – birds are chirping and blossoms are blooming, so the typical college thing to do is head down to Daytona Beach, spend a week in an alcoholic haze and then wake up next to some guy telling you stories about his escape from the local jail.

SpringBreak, actually, can be a little more culturally rewarding than that. Let me tell you about an alternative to such mainstream mayhem: how about shakin’ your groove thang to some salsa sounds instead of baking it on the beach?

For the past five years, the Office of International Programs, in conjunction with the Mexico City branch of the YMCA, has offered a unique service opportunity that few NKU students consider when planning their precious week. Fifteen adventurers from NKU, including twelve students, two faculty and one staff member, participated in the Alternative Spring Break Program in Mexico City this year to do community service work and boldly dive into Mexican culture. I found out about the program through a friend of mine who was thoughtful enough to recruit me. Despite the fact that I didn’t know any Spanish, I accepted this invitation, to discovering a world previously unimaginable.

Our week-long jaunt in Mexico City was both social and work-oriented, but I found it difficult to distinguish between these two sides of the trip, since all of the activities were so enjoyable. Imagine, the deep satisfaction of climbing a mountain, and then taking a photograph of a volcano with smoke sleepily billowing from its top. How about helping to teach young people and adults English while gaining a greater grasp of the Spanish language for yourself? A common reaction to this sort of program is: “Why would I want to work over my spring break? I’ll take all the time I can get just to relax and party.” In response to this, I can honestly say that despite a little bit of effort that the trip required of us, it was mostly just incredibly relaxing, satisfying and an inspiring journey. One that was both extremely fun and rewarding.

A typical day in Mexico City started out at the home of my host family, where Claudia, a YMCA University college student, and her mother and I would have a quick breakfast after sleeping in too late. We would then fight traffic to get to the YMCA, where I would get cleaned up and then meet with our group from NKU. I was stationed at the Naucalpan Community Development Center, a branch of the YMCA, where my group was responsible for working on service projects while interacting with local faculty and students. The evenings were generally free, perfect for venturing out with new friends to learn Latin dancing. We even had time to visit a tourist site known as Xochimilco, where the group took a relaxing boat tour of the floating Aztec gardens while enjoying the festive music of the mariachi band.

I was shocked when I found out how poor the neighborhood where my group was stationed really was. The YMCA, intending to make a positive impact on the neighborhood through its educational, recreational and health-related services, sprang up as a result of this. One insight that I gained from my experience in Mexico is that when a group such as ours goes into a community to do service, it’s important that we show respect toward the local people. As folks from the U.S., we sometimes have an ethnocentric way of viewing the world, especially regarding developing nations. So, it was great that our new friends told us what they needed help with as opposed to the reverse situation occurring. This fact added a cool dynamic to the trip, as “go with the flow” became the motto for the week.

Most of our service work at the YMCA was in preparation for the Kermesse, an annual outdoor fundraising festival, that the YMCA holds for the local community.

While I enjoyed participating in the activities of this trip, the Mexican culture itself was the most valuable facet of the experience. When our group first set foot into this community, we were considered members of a big family right away. Being a more collective society than our own, the Mexican culture considers the family bond to be especially sacred. It’s not surprising that Claudia, my host sister, invited me to come back to Mexico this summer, and she accepted my own invitation to experience the culture in the United States.

Everyone from our host families, to our friends at the YMCA, to everyday folks that we met, were abundantly warm and welcoming. In Mexico, Mi casa es su casa is a common phrase meaning, “Our house is your house.”

Beyond providing an overall enriching experience, the Alternative Spring Program in Mexico City is an ideal opportunity to help students develop and clarify their academic and career goals. Before the trip, I knew that teaching was something that I really enjoyed.

However, as a result of working with the wonderful faculty and students at the Naucalpan CDC, I now see this activity for what it truly is in my life: a passion. Furthermore, I am now determined to learn Spanish, as I have witnessed firsthand its importance both in terms of cultural exchange and social justice.

If you’d like to go on this unique travel opportunity, except that your financial limitations could prevent this idea from taking off, The Office of International Programs has scholarship funds that cover most of the cost of the trip.

The program also receives additional funding from various sources on campus, as well as from the YMCA International Committee.