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First-Ever Alternative Spring Break Program Offered by the International Office a Memorable One

Modified: May 6, 2015

Spring Break 2015 marked the first-ever Alternative Spring Break program offered by the International Office at Northwestern University. In recognition of the lack of similar programming available to graduate students, and desire on the part of the graduate student community to engage in civic-minded pursuits, the International Office decided to target this immersive, week-long program toward international graduate students.

Memphis, Tennessee, was selected as the destination in order to provide a distinctly different cultural experience than students will likely have encountered in the Midwest, and to offer a fair number of cultural attractions outside of the volunteer opportunities they would experience. In recognition of the interest areas of students who registered for the program, the service opportunities were focused on encountering social issues through the context of urban education. Given this focus, Memphis turned out to be a particularly, and unexpectedly favorable destination since it has been identified as a city with many of the same challenges found in much larger urban areas, but that is a sufficiently manageable size that education models can be more easily tested there and then scaled to larger cities like Chicago.

At the end of March, nine international graduate students, from program as varied as Business, Statistics, Psychology, Biotechnology, and Applied Physics, among others, and, for the most part unknown to one another before embarking on this adventure, traveled to Memphis. During their week, students learned about American urban education and various social issues that present challenges to student achievement. The Northwestern students visited the National Civil Rights Museum, volunteered at a private elementary school, visited a charter elementary school and a high school that has been taken over by an education consulting company tasked with raising the achievement level after having been identified as a failing campus. A very rainy and cold but rewarding day was spent building a community garden at a charter middle school, and the last day of the program was spent talking to middle schoolers at a charter school in downtown Memphis and helping to organize their library.

The Northwestern group also had opportunities to prepare meals together, and visit a number of sites in Memphis, including the Peabody Hotel, Beale Street, Sun Studios, and to hear some live music in the birthplace of rock and roll.

The students who participated in the program presented on their experiences in Memphis to their fellow international graduate students at an event on May 5th, held at the International Office. The recent launch of the Graduate International Student Association (G-ISA) has also illuminated the need for expanded service-oriented, socially-conscious programming for international graduate students, as this was identified as a foundational value of that group.

In collaboration with G-ISA, the International Office is continuing to build this programming effort and has begun by promoting NU Gives Back, a campus-wide service day, to be held May 16th, to the international graduate student community. The IO and G-ISA hope to be able to provide service programs on a quarterly basis to help students learn more about and contextualize social issues, enhance their experience in the U.S., gain exposure to a wider community of Northwestern students, and engage more often in opportunities in Chicago and the surrounding area.

To check out pictures from the trip to Memphis, follow #IOinMemphis on the International Office Twitter page @NUIntOff. To see upcoming programs, visit the IO homepage at www.northwestern.edu/international. If you would like to collaborate on service opportunities, contact Emlyn Torres at e-torres@northwestern.edu, or G-ISA Service Coordinator, Ihsan Pramada at ihsanpramanda2014@u.northwestern.edu.