Story posted January 20, 2012
Although he slept on the floor at 30 College St. this week, Robbie (Raymond) Harrison '14 didn't have a hard time falling asleep at night. His days took care of that.
As a co-leader of an Alternative Winter Break (AWB) group, he rose before dawn, helped prepare breakfast, then piled into a Portland-bound van with seven other students for a 12-hour day of volunteer work with immigrant and refugee communities.
AWB, administered by the McKeen Center for the Common Good, is now in its fourth year. It began as a small group of five students who came back to Bowdoin a week early from winter break to work with homeless people in the Portland community. It has since expanded to include work with immigrant and refugee populations as well.
This year, nearly 20 students gave up the comforts of home to pitch in for a demanding week of engagement with Portland community groups.
First stop for Harrison's group was a workshop with 50 English Language Learning (ELL) students in Portland's Lincoln Middle School.
Theirs was a delicate task—helping the often taciturn students speak about their dreams.
"We wanted to get them talking about themselves," explained Harrison. "Very often, ELL kids in mainstream classes are somewhat silent and don't get that attention. We wanted to help them vocalize their strengths and weaknesses and begin to think about themselves more deeply.
"There are those moments when the mask or shield comes off," Harrison added. "A student at my table revealed he wanted to be a musician and no one else knew he played music. It's great when you see seeds being planted."
This was an exercise with a purpose. The ELL students are traveling to Bowdoin next week for College Bound and Ready, a program former AWB leader Samantha Collins '11 developed and implemented last year to help the students see what college is like, and hopefully, to raise their aspirations.
"We had a very positive experience with the students last year," noted Collins, who is now a teaching intern at Portland Adult Education (PAE), which serves a variety of clients, including adult refugees who need to learn English.
"My perspective on college aspirations with these students is different [from the middle-schoolers]," she said. "Some students in my class are doctors in their home countries, but cannot transfer their certification to the U.S. system and need to learn English. Others need English language skills for basic survival."
The profundity of the language barrier for immigrants wasn't lost on Harrison and his group, who traveled to PAE later in the morning to work with Collins' adult students. Those pupils can range in age from 20 to 80, he said.
"The minute we walked in the door they were calling us 'teacher,'" said Harrison, who, as a Spanish major, is himself a language student. "It's very unusual at our age to be in that position of respect with older adults. We talked with students who come from different countries and speak two or three languages, they have worked so much harder than we have, and yet we're the ones telling them how to reach college.
"It gave us a lot to think about after we got back from Portland," he added. "We're privileged to be young and working on our education. Privilege with a capital P. It is daunting."
Alternative Winter Break gives students many different twists on the familiar. Instead of retiring to their own rooms, for instance, the groups bunk up together on floors, chairs and sofas at several of Bowdoin's college houses.
"We want to feel like we're not exactly on campus," says Harrison. "We want a sense of group bonding, so we stay together and don't sleep in the dorms."
The sparseness of accommodation can sometimes reflect on the living experience of some of the populations with whom the students are volunteering. "There is something about roughing it, when they're dealing with issues of poverty, that is part of the experience as well," notes Sarah Seames, Senior Associate Director of the McKeen Center for the Common Good.
Hannah Wurgaft '14, who participated in the AWB group focused on hunger and homelessness, said their lack of creature comforts paled in comparison with those living on the streets.
"While sleeping on the floor certainly is not ideal, the instability and uncertainty that homeless men and women face day in and day out is simply not something we have had to deal with," she said, adding: "Many don't even have consistent, reliable access to a bathroom."
The AWB program was Wurgaft's first foray into this kind of community involvement. Prior to her AWB experience, she had assumed that homelessness was primarily tied to unemployment.
Her work at Preble Street's Logan Place, a permanent residence for chronically homeless individuals, opened her eyes, she said: "We found that many chronically homeless people ... are severely mentally ill and physically unable to maintain employment. They often lack family support or a community network. Logan Place provides them with a stable environment and a sense of community."
McKeen Center Associate Director for Community-based Courses and Research Janice Jaffe says she knows AWB is a launching pad for students to deepen their studies and work on social issues in the community long after graduation. In fact, she noted, Preble Street is run by Bowdoin alum Mark Swann '84.
"Many students begin with a volunteer project like this, and then seek out courses that explore public issues in more depth," she notes. "They not only continue volunteering regularly with these organizations, but may also pursue related summer fellowships and independent studies projects that provide a broader understanding and greater sense of commitment and purpose over time."
Other organizations where AWB students volunteered this year included: Community Financial Literacy, Portland Housing Authority, Preble Street (Logan Place, Teen Center, Resource Center), Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program and Maine Building Material Exchange.