For many years, a passion for service has poured out of the Valparaiso University community as groups of Valpo students step away from their time-consuming schedules, give up their Wi-Fi connections, and travel to locations all across the world, dedicating a week of their spring break to service.
“These trips are more than just something to do during spring break,” says Carolyn Whittier, Ph.D., assistant dean of students for Greek life, leadership and volunteer programs. “They’re done with intention, they’re done with thought, and they’re an important part of what it means to be a Valpo student.”
Valpo’s spring break spans two weeks, which gives students the opportunity to partake in one of the many service or short-term Study Abroad trips offered by the University. The University offers a few of the same service trips every year, such as a trip to New Orleans for first-year students to help rebuild and restore homes still affected by Hurricane Katrina, or a trip to Gulfport, Miss., where students work with Gulfport Habitat for Humanity. The remaining trip locations vary year-to-year based on need.
“Students have the ability to make an incredible impact and gain a unique experience that is unobtainable elsewhere,” Whittier says. “You won’t get this type of experience on campus or on a beach.”
For the second year, the University is offering a spring service trip for members of the sorority and fraternity community to travel to locations with fraternal history. Last year, fraternity and sorority members traveled to Memphis, Tenn., where Kappa Delta, Chi Omega, and Pi Kappa Alpha, three of the fraternal groups present on campus, are headquartered. Because the experiences of the first trip were so strong, this year fraternity and sorority members will have the opportunity to further explore fraternity and sorority connections, but in the Washington, D.C. area.
“I’m really passionate about what fraternity and sorority life can do and I’m also really passionate about service,” said Leah Birhanu ’17. “Having the opportunity to put my two favorite things together has been incredible.”
Last year while working with the Mid-South Food Bank, an agency where donated food can be sorted, packaged, and delivered to local food pantries, students sorted and packaged enough food to distribute nearly 40,000 meals to the 300 food pantries in the Memphis area. This year while in D.C., fraternity and sorority members will have the opportunity to work with another food bank.
“Just by coming in for a day or two, we’re able to make such an impression on all of the organizations,” Emily Kunkle ’17 says. “It’s amazing the difference we can make in just a week.”
Students on the Memphis trip also worked with Alpha Omega Veterans Service Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps veterans reintegrate into society. The students were able to sit with the veterans, most of whom are homeless, and learn about their experiences.
“To see these men who have sacrificed so much for our country not receiving the same benefits that we do was eye-opening,” Emily says. “It’s sad this is such a need in our country.”
Whittier served as a trip advisor and observed the students’ interaction with the veterans. “Being able to witness the care and ethic of a Valpo student, wanting to help these men and women and wondering how they can, is phenomenal and fascinating,” Whittier says. “The questions that are asked and the inspiration that happens between the two — you cannot replicate those situations, and you cannot intentionally create them. They just happen.”
Being able to serve others is just one of the many benefits of the trip. Students create a strong bond through their shared experiences and form friendships.
“It’s a better way to get to know people that you normally wouldn’t interact with,” Emily says. “We’re all part of this community, we’re all part of Valpo, but the fact that we’re connected through service is extremely special.”
The many memories created while on the trip still continue today, as trip attendees not only still remain in contact, but many of the students who attend the trips return for another, including Leah, who will also be traveling to D.C. this spring.
“I’ve had cool service opportunities before, but never one where you bond so much during the service that you just want to carry that through the rest of college,” says Leah. “How close we got — how much fun we had — it was incomparable.”
This year, students will participate in faith-based trips to Martin, Ky. and Milwaukee, environmental restoration in Biloxi, Miss. and disaster relief in South Carolina, learn about the Native American culture in Mission, S.D., and have the opportunity to stay on campus to participate in service opportunities within and surrounding the local community. In addition to service-related trips, groups from the College of Nursing and Health Professions, Christ College — The Honors College, and the sociology and theology departments will participate in academically oriented trips, and Engineers Without Borders will return to Haiti to continue efforts to bring renewable energy to an orphanage.
Students will travel to locations where many have never been, participate in community outreach covering a variety of areas of focus and disciplines, and have the opportunity to visit and tour national monuments. Through these experiences, each will develop an understanding of the history and traditions of the area they visit.
“All of the experiences broaden the prospective of the many women and men who participate,” Whittier says. “Students are impacted just in the essence of being present in the moment and being part of an experience that they have never had or done before. It can be life-altering.”