Doing more: Zaynab Nasif’s journey through service-learning

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By Catie Armstrong

Zaynab Nasif, a senior global studies major from Raleigh, was already service-minded before she attended her first APPLES Service-Learning Alternative Spring Break trip in 2016. In high school, she was involved in service organizations that connected her to the community, but the experience left her yearning to do more when she came to Carolina.

2018 Alternative Spring Break participants at Foodbarn“Service, as I had known it before, was merely direct; I tutored elementary school students, which was one of my favorite experiences, but it didn’t go further than that,” she said. “With APPLES, I was able to discuss my service experiences more in-depth and critically think about why I was doing service and how it can expand toward advocacy and greater institutional change.”

APPLES offers alternative spring break experiences, providing students with opportunities to perform service activities across North Carolina, the Southeast and the mid-Atlantic during fall, winter and spring breaks. The student-led groups work collaboratively to engage in focus areas and learn more about their destination community before the trip occurs. Once at the destination, students explore a new culture and carry out meaningful community service.

During her sophomore year, Nasif’s first ASB was to Atlanta to learn about poverty and homelessness in a larger urban area. She was thrown out of her comfort zone; an experience she said allowed her to grow and inspired her to become more involved in service. Two years later, Nasif has expanded her engagement with ASB to co-lead the urban alternative spring trip to Atlanta.

“When I went on my ASB trip in 2016, there were times I was uncomfortable and out of my element,” Nasif said. “That’s what I wanted my participants this year to feel, because I think that’s when the most growth happens.”

Alongside co-leader Cameron Cooper, Nasif wanted to provide their participants with a well-rounded and meaningful break, similar to her first experience.

“As leaders, it was a totally different experience throughout because we realized we had to step back at times and let the participants feel that discomfort for themselves,” she said.

At times, this meant exposing the nine participants to situations that may be uncomfortable but would result in incredible learning experiences.

“We knew that the work the community partners were doing was difficult and often emotionally taxing, but also had a positive impact on the community,” Nasif said. “So we wanted our participants to see what it takes to be a community asset.”

One of the community service partners the urban communities ASB served this year was Re:Loom, a subset of the Initiative on Affordable Housing in Atlanta, which aids the community by employing individuals to turn recycled materials into clothing and accessories.

“From this year’s trip, I loved going to Re:Loom,” Nasif said. “The whole group ended up cutting up this giant festival poster to into small pieces to turn into bags, and we all bonded as we were helping out.”

2018 ASB participants in AtlantaShifting roles from serving as a participant to co-leader meant Nasif was able to take the elements she loved from her first ASB experience and supplement them by personalizing this year’s trip. Nasif designed the ASB experience to encompass everyone’s unique service interests, a quality she adopted from her former break leaders.

She highlighted the connection she felt when her team visited DeKalb International Student Center, a transition school for refugees. “I never saw a school operate the way it does,” she said. “Learning about the circumstances that many of the students were living in was also hard to dissect. It was the community partner that had the biggest impact on me personally, and I wanted others to feel that sense of connection and passion for a cause or organization.”

Nasif has always been interested in working in nonprofit settings and serving communities in need. Leading this alternative spring break reinforced her passion and opened her eyes to the reality of her future field.

“As a senior graduating in less than two weeks, I remember thinking ASB would be a one week experience, but I left feeling motivated to do more,” Nasif said.

She also emphasized the importance of the sustainable relationships APPLES breaks program has built with its community partners, particularly in Atlanta. Many of the community partners ASB serves have been partners for years, meaning participants have been able to see their impact grow.

“We know that a week of service will not alleviate all the problems that some of the communities are facing, but I think it is important to be exposed to what the partner is doing, how they are doing it, and what service-oriented leaders can do to help either in the moment or in the future.”