For many students, this summer was unique. They didn’t spend the whole summer with friends or at their regular seasonal job; they spent an extended period of time immersed in an unfamiliar location, volunteering for a needy cause. Whether they volunteered abroad or domestically, these students returned with a different outlook, and they’ll likely have a lot to talk about. Summer service trips often have that effect, and we’ve compiled five of the most interesting lessons students learn from them.
1. Ordinary people have extraordinary power.
It’s not uncommon for students to feel somewhat shy during the first few days or even weeks of their summer service trip. The location and people are new, and it can take time for students to feel comfortable around them. Also, the severity of the neediness around them can feel overwhelming, making students question their ability to help at all. However, after students warm up to their surroundings and become more confident in their duties, they will likely begin to make decisions on their own and take more ownership of their work. Soon, they will see the good changes that they and their teammates are making, and they will learn that even those who seem most ordinary can effect great change.
2. Students can rely on themselves.
Summer service trips often immerse students in locations that require them to step far outside their comfort zones. Not only do students live in a different physical environment, but they are required to perform self-help skills that they might never perform at home. Students must learn how to do things like take a bus to their place of service, navigate a city map, or draw water from a well every day. As a result, students often come back more confident in themselves, having figured out how to function in an unfamiliar environment completely on their own. Without the assistance of adults or even technology, they relied on their own agency and succeeded.
3. Immersion is the best way to learn about social issues.
Studying social issues in class can teach students only so much. Volunteering sporadically is also limited in its ability to provide a clear view into the complexities of social issues. But, when students participate in a summer service trip, they immerse themselves in communities affected daily by the burdens the students are seeking to ease. Students have the opportunity to engage with community members for an extended period, during which time students can learn from their stories and begin to understand the depth of the issues. Students also have the opportunity to meet and work alongside community leaders and resident nonprofit staff, who can add other perspectives. When students return, they have gained a well rounded understanding of the issue.
4. “Community” is a powerful force.
Summer service trips often involve a group of students traveling and volunteering together. However, some programs gather student volunteers from across the country or even across the globe. Once gathered, the group engages in volunteer work as a team. Whether volunteer groups were previously acquainted or complete strangers, they learn about working together, overcoming differences, using one another’s strengths, and cultivating a team spirit. Students learn that the community of their team, when properly nurtured, can accomplish even greater things within the community they serve. They learn that, as a strong unit, they can better serve their beneficiaries, make greater strides in solving the social issues that affect them, and help fortify the communities in which they live.
5. Students gain perspective on the future.
Spending even a few weeks immersed in an unfamiliar environment often gives students a “culture shock” that wakes them up to their future. Regardless of whether students spent their summer service trip in a foreign country or within the U.S., they often use this community service experience to reflect on the social issues affecting communities, the nation, or even the world, and they contemplate their role in it. It’s not unusual for students to return home with a plan to continue addressing the same social issue and to begin researching how to incorporate that work into their future career path.
When school begins, students will likely be excited to share stories about their summer service trips. The best thing teachers and administrators can do is encourage them to speak and write about what they learned. In doing so, students’ perspectives will evolve, and they will arrive at thoughtful ideas for taking next steps.
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