In the Trenches
Each year, dozens of Temple students forego typical spring break activities to volunteer in Philadelphia and beyond.
Story By Jimmy Viola, SCT ’10
For college students, traveling to Mexico during spring break is similar to a pilgrimage—but few journey south of the border for a week of unpaid manual labor. In 2010, I was offered a last-minute spot with 12 other Temple students to visit Mexico on a service immersion trip. Since my only previous experiences in Mexico had been visiting the resort island of Cozumel, I jumped at the chance to share a cultural experience with the people of Mexicali, a desert city with a population of 900,000 on the border of California.
The students who went to Mexicali were not the only Owls immersed in service; approximately 77 Temple students traveled to volunteer during the 2009–2010 academic year. They worked to improve sustainable farming in Jamaica and studied Native American communities in North Dakota. The service immersion program at Temple also sends eager volunteers to the communities in the university’s backyard: The local program combines efforts with Campus Philly, a nonprofit that helps students explore the Philadelphia region, and other local college students. Student Activities sponsors the Temple service immersion trips.
“Our staff tries to focus on themes that will resonate with the students’ academic coursework as well as relate to issues prevalent in Philadelphia,” says Gina D’Annunzio, THM ’06, student activities director. “We hope that our immersion program provides cross-cultural experiences that challenge our students’ comfort zones, question their assumptions and expand their perspectives.”
Mexicali has one of the most diverse populations in the country. Residents brag about having the largest Chinatown in Mexico, with approximately 5,000 Chinese-Mexicans living in the city. But the urban sprawl of the border city, which includes movie theaters, bowling alleys, fast-food chains and Chinese restaurants, served only as peripheral scenery as we drove to the rural, dustblown villages where we volunteered each day.
A key part of the service immersion trips is partnering with local organizations. In Mexicali, we served with Los Niños International, a nonprofit that operates in both the U.S. and Mexico and aims to develop new opportunities for the communities it serves.
Our work with Los Niños immersed us in all aspects of local life, including the daily hardships its people face with effortless smiles. We mixed cement with shovels until the powder coated our clothes. We planted cacti, a common food in the Mexican diet, and spent most of the next day removing tiny thorns from our skin and clothing. We also learned how local communities have adapted to better provide for themselves.
For example, Los Niños has trained 40 women to become community promoters. The women then educate more than 20,000 people in Mexico about nutrition and new business opportunities. To date, community promoters have built 175 organic gardens for homes, schools and neighborhoods. One of their most successful ventures in Mexicali is a beekeeping cooperative that yielded 1,300 liters of affordable honey this year.
Alonzo Lucero, director of the Mexicali branch of Los Niños, is personally invested in improving the area. As a child, he jumped over the U.S.-Mexico border fence to pick tomatoes because by doing so, he could make more money than his parents did. As an adult, Lucero has resolved to expand economic opportunities for the people of Mexicali.
Sarra Bae, Class of 2012, poses with a girl from Mexicali.
Madlyn Wendell, Class of 2012 (foreground), and Erin Poplar, Class of 2012, improve the exterior of their Appalachian project.
The organization’s local partnerships also taught students an effective way to approach community service. “One of the biggest lessons I learned was the importance of partnering with people who are already there,” says Sarah Baranik, a student in the College of Liberal Arts who majors in Spanish business and minors in anthropology. “We need to serve with people, especially being outsiders coming in.”
Baranik used her fluency in Spanish to connect with the people of Mexicali we encountered during our trip. She also has traveled to Costa Rica and Honduras to volunteer. Baranik hopes to work with orphans in Latin America and says that she learned more about herself and other cultures during her time in Mexicali.
“It helped me realize that the relationships I formed with the local people were a lot more important than the tasks that needed to be accomplished,” she says. “It is so crucial to work with a local community. There is no other way to do it.”
Grassroots community change is a common theme in service immersion trips. Viánnie Bell, a broadcast journalism student in the School of Communications and Theater, volunteered for the Philadelphia service immersion program, working with students from University of Pennsylvania, University of the Arts and Saint Joseph’s and Drexel universities. She had never considered teaching as a possible career, but after working at Germantown High School with EducationWorks, she is considering entering the Peace Corps and becoming a teacher.
“It made me realize how much I want to help inner-city students and how much I want to protect them from the violence they see every day,” Bell says.
Kyle Mimms,SBM ’10, attended a weekend retreat in Camden, N.J., in October 2009. He and the other volunteers were given a weekend food budget of $3. Suffering from hunger like many impoverished people in Camden and Philadelphia inspired Mimms to pursue urban planning after graduation.
Each year, the Temple Honors Program also offers a trip called the Honors Appalachian Experience. Students assist Habitat for Humanity in building and renovating houses in rural Kentucky and West Virginia.
“Many of our students have been exposed to urban poverty,” says Amanda Neuber, associate director of the Honors Program, “but very few, if any, have seen rural poverty. You do not really know until you go and see it, experience it and live it. The goal of the Honors Appalachian Experience is to work with and for the people, and to learn as much as possible from them. “
When we began our journey back to the U.S. at the end of the trip to Mexicali, we stood in line for more than two hours to cross the border on foot from Tijuana to San Diego. Windstorms delayed our connecting flight from Chicago to Philadelphia and we slept in O’Hare International Airport. But those minor inconveniences were worlds removed from the hardships endured by the population we had just left.
Fellow classmates also learned how two cultures can find common ground. “A border divides two countries, but even with all the cultural differences, when it comes down to helping out each other, everyone can get along really well,” says Guy Petrucci, an international business administration student. “As different as [Mexicali] was, you could still [tell] a joke and they would laugh.”
Jimmy Viola graduated from Temple in 2010 with a degree in broadcast journalism. He has written for The Temple News, Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Business Journal.
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