There is nothing quite like gathering together as a community after a week spent together. AWOL trips allow relationships (both new and old) to grow, students to be exposed to a social issue in another community, and be immersed in organizations that seek to handle the issues. Of course, who could forget the drive to the communities? I am a firm believer that nothing bonds a group of students together like spending many hours of quality time in a van (who doesn’t love road trips?). But when the break is over and the students return to campus, questions are presented. How do I take what I learned in the community I was immersed in to Vermillion? How do I come back after seeing the poverty, the hunger, and the issues that I witnessed and go back to your “normal” life? How do I process all that happened with the AWOL group I grew close to but now are not around as much? These are tough, but common concerns for returning AWOL students and the same ones I faced after my experiences.

Luckily, the Reorientation event on March 31st sought to help the Spring Break participants answer these questions. Complete with popcorn and puppy chow (with plenty of powdered sugar), students reunited with those from their trips and met other AWOL students. This event allowed the active students to process how their week of service has influenced them since their return to Vermillion. Not only did they have the opportunity to process their weeks since returning, but they also learned about the other Spring Break Trips through lovely PowerPoint presentations:

1.       First up was AWOL Seattle trip students. With plenty of pictures and stories to share, they expressed how great of an opportunity it was to work with sustainability. Many of the students learned new ways to be sustainable that have influenced their local life in Vermillion. One of the interesting things that the students were able to do was package coffee (food as well) for the homeless that was donated by Starbucks. As the founding city for Starbucks, a fun fact that the students learned was that there are over 400 of them in Seattle alone! Seattle must love their coffee!

2.       Second up was the AWOL Salt Lake City team that focused on homelessness. Completing an impressive 492 hours of service total (that’s 41 hours a person!), they were able to work with Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army and other organizations. One student noted that before arriving they were told they wouldn’t see many homeless people but were shocked when they saw 400 homeless in a 1-2 block section of the city. This was a revelation because the students realized that homelessness could happen to anyone.

3.       Third was the AWOL Eagle Butte squad that immersed themselves in the South Dakota reservation. This lively group recounted the many stories and joys of the road trip aspect of the trip in which the Site Leader, Andrew, and Learner Partner, Sara, attempted to rap during the ride. Needless to say it was a bonding experience for everyone. One story that particularly struck the students was the day they rode the buses home with the kids and saw the conditions in which some families live. They recalled that 80% of residents of Eagle Butte are unemployed and so their living situations were minimal and difficult to witness. On a positive note, students were inspired to see how many people are trying to help and make a difference in the Eagle Butte community.

4.       Last, but certainly not least, was the AWOL Sauk Center crew. These students worked in Camphill Village, a 500-acre sustainable farm where everyone shares the workload. This village is home to a disabled population. The students helped in the garden, kitchen, and manual labor by filling a woodshed. A takeaway for the students was learning to understand what people with disabilities can and cannot do. This learning was facilitated by getting to know the local people and interacting with them, which is one of the greatest things about an AWOL trip.

The event concluded with some final thoughts by the AWOL Executive Board Members that were present. As a senior and the current President for Program Development, this was one of the last AWOL events I will be able to attend. One of my favorite aspects of being on the Executive Board is learning about what the students experienced on their AWOL trips. To see the students transform into more active citizens inspires me to do the same. It has been encouraging to see how the AWOL organization has grown throughout the four years I have been involved, and how much it has impacted my life. Joining AWOL was one of the best decisions I made in my undergraduate career. Sadly, as with the rest of my days here at USD, my time with AWOL is coming to an end. However, I am eager to see how AWOL continues to develop with the new changes that are being implemented. It is definitely an exciting time to be a part of this great organization!