“Find yourself by losing yourself in service.” I originally heard this phrase while on my first service learning trip to Puerto Rico in 2017 and I will never forget it. It perfectly embodies the value of our annual 8th grade service-learning trips. From the very beginning, our 8th graders are active participants in the process of choosing, planning, and fundraising this life changing experience. But this trip doesn’t only impact the individuals who participate in it; it impacts every person in their life and the lives of the people in the communities we serve. Service is different than helping; service is a partnership. Helping implies that one party has more power than the other; it implies that one party is lesser than the other. The work we do is mutually beneficial; each party gives and receives from the other. This mindset ensures that there is no pity involved in our experience; we help students develop empathy, not sympathy. In doing so, we develop perspective, appreciation, and mindfulness: of ourselves, our world, and our place in it. My name is Aaron Fischer; I am a 7th and 8th grade Language and Literature teacher at The Academy for Global Citizenship. In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to explain the impact of this experience on our families, students and the world.
I’ll begin with the families because they are the people who are so often overlooked in this experience. The brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, and of course mothers and fathers who travel on this journey with us. Who place their trust and faith in teachers to bring their children home safe and sound with a new perspective on the world and themselves. The parents exhibit some of the same IB learner profile traits that we expect their children to exhibit on this trip: risk-taker, communicator, open-minded, balanced, and reflective. While our students are developing who they are as individuals, their parents are too.
I marvel at the bravery of our students’ parents as they drop their child off at the airport and say goodbye. I am always so proud of them when the thorough communication that we provide helps them become more at ease as we settle in. As the trip moves into the final days, the anticipation of seeing their child causes parents to miss them in a way that they have never experienced before. The eventual family reunion, with renewed appreciation of each other and a modified perspective on their relationship, always leaves me speechless, reflecting on the unique and unexplainable impact on each family unit. It is a truly incredible, subtle transformation that produces a bond and appreciation between teacher, student, and family that is second to none.
It is obvious that the students are the main priority of our 8th grade service-learning trip but what is not so obvious is the impact that the experience has on their identity. This mystery is part of what makes this experience so dynamic and individualized. Our students are leaving their families, their friends, their communities, their habits and routines, and yes, their cell phones behind and basically taking a blind leap of faith. As adults, we have experiences to refer to in order to help us take abstract ideas and experiences and rationalize them into something we can understand. Young adults have a much more limited ability to conceptualize the unknown. They are excitable but often aren’t sure what they are excited about. It is the unknown that excites them and their willingness to jump in headfirst is an incredible gift that our service-learning trip allows them to take full advantage of.
I’ll never forget the first evening of our 2019 service-learning trip to Puerto Rico. We were walking from our hotel to the restaurant we would be eating at all week. I walked this same route many times while working with my first group of students in 2017 and was thinking nothing of it until one of my students pointed and yelled, “They have pigeons in Puerto Rico!?” This moment, this tiny, seemingly silly moment, is an example of a connection made between the known and the unknown; an example of a child’s worldview broadening in the blink of an eye. These are the moments that litter our subconscious, and these are the moments I live for as I watch our students take in a new world and make it a part of theirs. The selective subtlety of memories, the individual impact of an experience, that is what our service-learning trip provides to our students in the most immersive way.
My mother and I often reminisce about the past, when I was little and she would take my brother and me to places big and small. Sometimes she asks me, “Do you even remember that? Did it even matter?” I always reply to her with the same response, “It’s in there somewhere.” That’s the beauty of finding yourself by losing yourself in service. It can’t be explained simply, in fact, most of it can’t be explained at all. It must be experienced and it can never be taken away, it will always be in there somewhere.
Life and the World
Although the AGC 8th grade service-learning trip is geared toward the betterment of our students as individuals, we have an undeniable impact on life and the world. The impact of service, whether it is environmental, spiritual, or communal, has ripple effects that reverberate for days, weeks, and years after we leave the location in which we serve.
Environmentally speaking, we impact the earth and in turn the earth impacts us. We marvel at the intricacies of the earth’s design, resilient in the face of man-made obstacles and poisons. We stand in the forests of Puerto Rico, mud to our knees and spiders hovering around our head, and plunge our hands into the dense, moist soil to remove the invasive species and bring light to the native Mangroves that are so important to the well being of the island. Smiling, filthy and sweaty, we are proud to have the opportunity to connect with our earth on a different level, marveling at our ability to feel so small yet so powerful in the same moment.
When is comes to community, I will refer to a dictionary definition that says, “A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” Our students embark on this journey of service not only to develop themselves and impact the environment; they travel and serve to broaden their perspective on their individual significance in our global community. No matter where we are, we are an individual part of a greater whole and with travel and service comes an understanding that our community is not our neighborhood, our city, or even our country; it is our world and all the people, plants, and animals that inhabit it. We strive to give our students the opportunity to discover this fact in an organic way, whether they are standing in the middle of a rainforest, looking out over the Caribbean Sea, standing at the base of a volcano, or navigating bustling cities and markets, we prioritize connections to our world community.
Spirituality means many things to many people, and while we are engaged in service, we have an opportunity to step back and examine and evaluate our individual perspective on what it is to be human. I watch as our students take a moment, unprompted, to look around them and take stock of who they are, where they are, and where they’re headed. I see them develop a deeper more meaningful perspective on the power and potential that lives in them. This is an experience that provides our young people with the space and place to ask themselves, “Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?” These are some of the most significant questions given to us by life and there are few times where adults, let alone kids, are able to evaluate their answers with so little noise and so much inspiration.
In reality, the 8th grade service-learning trip cannot be explained, it can only be experienced. Each student, parent, and community member enters the experience as one version of themselves and exits as another. Moments as small as going to the grocery store, listening to the sound of the rain, and taking a deep breath are as significant as moments as large as climbing a volcano, swimming in the ocean, and being away from your family for the first time. The beauty of the experiences we create come from the simple fact that they are ours to share, remember, and build on. I am reminded of a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, “A mind that is stretched by new experiences can never go back to its old dimensions.”