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Written by Serah Lee ‘20

On this year’s spring break, before the travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders for COVID-19, 50 Carolina students took advantage of their vacation time to participate in APPLES Alternative Spring Breaks. Participants chose from among five focus areas and spent a week traveling through North Carolina to volunteer with a variety of service organizations.

Junior Aaron Park co-led the break focused on urban communities. Before spring break, Park was no stranger to working with urban communities: He was a participant in the same trip as a first-year back in 2018. 

“It’s a large family,” he said of APPLES. “It really does challenge you to think more critically about service-learning, but also about your role as an undergraduate student and how you’re going to better serve your surrounding communities.” 

Park highlighted some of the challenges of planning a break trip. He asked himself, “How am I going to design my trip with my co-leader that will a) capture urban community issues and b) engage students in a way that ties them together to promote growth?”

One of his favorite moments during the trip was a discussion at a LGBTQ+ haven for youth. 

“There’s this sense of appreciation and deep respect because your participants have grown up so much and you start to realize how important the way you educate them impacts how they participate in these kinds of experiences.”

Break leaders also grow and learn throughout these challenging experiences. One of the lessons Park learned as a leader: “Don’t be afraid to rely on one another. Some leaders feel like there’s a barrier between themselves and their participants, but they’re also super gifted and talented, insightful individuals that can be your support, so never think you’re alone in these types of experiences.”

As a biochemistry major, Park aspires to be a medical doctor. He emphasized that one of the biggest criticisms of medical healthcare work today is that doctors don’t care enough about people, instead focusing on their diagnosis or how the patient’s problem is going to be ‘fixed.’ 

“APPLES trains you how to interact with people and engage, to listen and really be considerate about the relationship you’re trying to form.”

Park will be returning to APPLES as the programming coordinator this fall.

Junior Leyla Ozelkan co-led a break trip focused on Latinx communities. The students’ service experiences ranged from working with refugee communities at the Church World Service, to visiting a soccer club in Wilmington, to working with migrant farm workers. 

Ozelkan said the most meaningful parts of her experience were seeing everything she planned come to life and watching her participants grow. She was also inspired by how certain people she met on the trip use their influence to build strong, healthy relationships in their community. 

Ozelkan shared how one of their community partners, Coach Kim, the first African American on the national women’s soccer team, would spend her weekend afternoons helping coach kids at the soccer fields in a Latinx community.

Allison Pittman, a participant on the Latinx communities break, said her favorite part of her experience was witnessing the positive mindset of migrant farm workers. The team visited a migrant farmworker camp and had the opportunity to chat with the farmworkers. Pittman was surprised by how, despite working nearly twelve hours a day under tough conditions, the farmworkers seemed to return home high-spirited and eager to share their stories. 

“I came from a really privileged background, and it made me think really deeply about political opinions I’ve had in the past,” Pittman said. “It made me confront where I’ve been problematic, and that was a really challenging part, but the group made it really easy to have that conversation and reflect on that.”

Ozelkan and Pittman also both aspire to enter the medical field. Their trip did not, at first glance, directly align with their future career goals, but both students say they gained more practical skills through their experiences—particularly by using their Spanish language skills and learning things about the community that aren’t taught in the classroom. 

“I think it gave me a lot of relevant context,” Pittman said. “Being involved with this community … gave me a lot of perspective … about the cultural values that keep immigrants from seeking healthcare and the different barriers that they face.” 

When asked what advice she had for other Carolina students considering an Alternative Break, Ozelkan said she highly recommends the experience:

“If you are remotely interested, do it,” she said. “In the week you go on the trip, you’re not going to make a profound difference in the community. But I think the biggest difference is what you learn and how you translate those lessons in your community and your profession later in life. Those are skills that are valuable that you aren’t going to learn anywhere else other than experiential learning.”

Park echoed agreement. “For upperclassmen, I know a lot of them express doubts with us about being too old for this kind of thing, or whether or not this is a good fit for them. But APPLES transforms people from all sorts of grades, identities and walks of life. So it doesn’t matter if you’re a first-year or senior, it’s a good experience regardless. So don’t be afraid to apply if you’re an upperclassman!”

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