Tuesday, November 29, 2016

GO! Alaska: My Experience with Global Outreach

Last summer, I had the privilege of participating in a Global Outreach project to Bethel, Alaska along with ten other team members from Fordham University.  This experience has become a defining moment in my both my experience as a Fordham student and my life in general.

Global Outreach at Fordham University offers about ten different service-learning/ cultural immersion projects to domestic and international locations.  The trips occur during winter break, spring break, and summer break, though preparation begins months in advance.  Each project is unique, focusing on location-specific social injustices and cultural elements. The program revolves around four “pillars”: social justice, simple living, spirituality, and community, and all of these pillars play a role in the GO experience.  While applying for a GO project, applicants must rank their “preferences,” before interviewing with the leader of each project for which he or she would like to be considered.  Each trip has a student leader and an outside chaperone, often alumni of Fordham and GO, who choose ten students for the project. 

The Alaska project focuses on issues of social injustice within the communities of Alaska, specifically alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual assault, and environmental issues.  Additionally, the project aims to help students learn about the Native Yupik culture of Bethel and understand the challenges that the community faces. 

After being selected for the team, for the next few months, my team and I had weekly meetings and fundraisers and spent a weekend away on a retreat, building irreplaceable bonds with one another.  By the time the moment came to leave for Alaska, I felt as though I had known my teammates for years, rather than months.  We turned off our phones and handed them over to our leader and boarded the plane for Bethel, Alaska. 

As the plane soared above the Alaskan landscape, I peered out into the clear, sharp sunlight. The dusty white mountain peaks before me clicked neatly with the images of Alaska that various vacation albums had delivered to my social media feed over the years.  Before long, the pilot’s voice crackled through the cabin, announcing our “descent into Bethel.”  I eagerly redirected my vision to the window; however, as soon as my eyes landed on the scene below, my heart froze in my chest. Gone were the idyllic mountaintops, replaced with dirty green tundra.  Smoky-grey wisps of clouds hung low above a graphite colored river, which snaked across the stark, barren land.  Tiny wooden houses of desaturated Easter-egg pinks, blues, and greens popped against the sterile Earth. 
Where am I? What have I gotten myself into? I wondered, my mind drowning in confusion and fear.

Suddenly faced with the prospects of just what we were about to encounter, I was afraid. I was afraid of the fact that the people didn’t look like me, I was afraid of the fact that the houses were smaller than any I had ever seen; I was afraid because I was shocked, because I didn’t know what was going to happen, because I had completely thrown myself out of my comfort zone.  Looking back, I realize that this paralyzing sense of confusion and fear was the essential first step in setting myself up for the enlightenment that I was about to experience.

In Bethel, we completed service such as cleaning a cemetery, building a little bookshop, and spending time with Teens Against Violence and the Elders at the Senior Center.  We visited different organizations, such as the Tundra Women's Coalition, a sexual assault shelter, the Juvenile Detention Center, and the District Attorney and Public Defender's office to learn about issues with the justice system in Alaska.  Additionally, we visited the Environmental Health Agency to learn a bit about some of the sanitation crises in Alaska.  We learned about the importance of subsistence living at the Wildlife Refugee and the Department of Fish and Game.  Yet we also had time for some fun cultural and regional activities: we met a team of sled dogs, canoed, went on boat rides on the Kuskokwim river, visited a fish camp for a day, where we made "hobo pies," and had the chance to shoot a shot gun, and we learned about Native tradition from a local woman.

Raised a Catholic, spirituality for me has always involved prayer, and consideration of the presence of God or a divine figure.  In Bethel, many of the Yupik people practice Catholicism, but for them, nature comprises an enormous component of their spirituality.  Learning the beliefs of these people helped me realize that spirituality relies not on dogmatism, but rather on the way in which we connect our souls and our lives with the world around us. 
As part of the pillar of simple living, Global Outreach enforces a no-phones policy.  Who needs cell phones? I originally thought with confidence, excited at the prospect of ten screen-free days.  Yet as I observed Bethel on that dreary first evening, I couldn’t help but wish I had my phone to distract my anxious brain. But soon enough, authentic conversation filled the absence of our devices.  We were completely and utterly immersed in our own lives and the moments that we ourselves were experiencing, rather than mindlessly examining the lives of others through social media or constantly stressing about plans and schedules. 

In Bethel, we met an array of personalities: a retired war veteran, who devotes his life to preserving a memorial; an elderly Native American woman with seemingly endless amounts of grandchildren; a part time barber, part time fisherman; a teenage boy, off to study glaciers in Northern Alaska. My experience in Bethel reminded me of the existence of the human community, in all its brightness and diversity.

Alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual assault- issues that plague the Bethel community, and issues that I have never before faced in my own life or own home community.  We spent a significant portion of our stay in Bethel visiting local organizations and simply listening.  All of the places attested to the brokenness in Bethel- how the lives of these people are continuously torn apart by issues that have their root in historical trauma that has lasted for generations.  Yet the organizations we visited view these problems with attitudes of rehabilitation and hope.  The men and women working towards restoring stability in the lives of the people demonstrated to me what it truly means to be passionate about a cause, and what it means to throw your heart and soul into creating better lives for other people. 

If you are passionate about learning about different cultures within the United States and across the globe, have a passion for or interest in service or social justice, and seek to make unique, irreplaceable new friendships, Global Outreach is the perfect opportunity.

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