Community service is an integral part of the Global UGRAD experience. Beyond being a program requirement, Global UGRAD participants embrace civic engagement as one of the most valuable, enjoyable, and rewarding parts of their semester in the U.S. As the spring semester students gear up to begin their own service activities, we would like to highlight the outstanding volunteer work of a few of our fall semester alumni as a source of inspiration. Keep an eye out for more community service updates from our current spring students – along with our own World Learning service trip! – in the March edition of the Global Gazette.
This past semester, I volunteered at the DC Central Kitchen with other international students from American University. DC Central Kitchen transforms discarded food items into nutritious meals for the homeless and local shelters. There were a lot of vegetables and canned food that stores donated because they could not sell them anymore, and we prepared food for dinner that day. We cut the vegetables for dinner service and helped prepare the meal. It was interesting knowing about how many people and restaurants and stores waste food. What’s amazing about community service is that it helps you change your perspective about things. After that visit me and my friends started paying more attention to our food and try not to waste it.
Most of my community service in the Incarnate Word Village had to do with artistic crafting activities like designing frames or mason jars. Everyone who knows me knows I don’t have a good relationship with art, but this motivated me even further to continue working in the village. That is because one of my goals about my U.S. experience was pushing my boundaries and getting out of my comfort zone. What I learned is that a smile or a short conversation meant more than being a great painter. Residents kept asking me about myself, my family, my country, and my experience here, and they made me feel welcome from the first day. Also, many people living there were war veterans, and I got to learn a lot about the war and how their lives have been. I have heard a lot about veterans since I came here, so I felt lucky that I had the possibility to interact with them directly and learn more about their experiences.
The village administrator gave us a tour as part of our orientation before starting to volunteer, and I learned so much from it. I got to see how nicely residents are treated and the great conditions they provide. While walking around the building, I was so surprised to see how happy they were and I started comparing it with similar facilities we have in Albania. I’ve had the chance to volunteer in retirement houses even in Albania, but it’s not the same and now more than ever I understand that many things have to change. In my home university I am part of the Charity Club, and I am thinking of proposing them to work more in retirement houses. The people living in those houses have gone through communism, wars, isolation, transitions, and they deserve to have the best life they can.
When I first read about the community service requirement, my heart jumped in excitement at the opportunity to build my social skills. Though I knew I want to exceed 20 hours, whether or not there would be sufficient demand remained a deep concern to me. To my delight, the availability of volunteer opportunities is endless in the U.S.
Volunteering with ArtPrize, I learned a lot about U.S. society outside of my university community. Americans are really friendly and helpful, as I was constantly offered guidance by the more experienced volunteers; they made me feel at home in a completely different community. After ArtPrize ended, I became more observant and began noticing art pieces in the homes of Americans. It is so interesting to see how much art means and influences Americans’ lives, not just in Michigan but also in other states that I had the opportunity to visit during the exchange program.
In addition, I also volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and at a summer camp organized by my mentor in the Department of Mathematics of GVSU. The abundance of options made it possible for me to experience different types of volunteerism. The places where I chose to volunteer enabled me to explore the mitten state of Michigan at its best, worst, and anything in between. My social skills improved; I became more outspoken and less shy. The time I spent volunteering was definitely eye-opening and pushed me to become a better person than I was before this exchange program. Before I knew it, I became addicted to it. Once I stepped back on the hot and humid earth of Malaysia, I realized that pieces of my heart were left behind, leaving it in a shape none other than a mitten’s. This new chapter in my life has been so very beautiful and nurturing.
My experience at the African Development Center (ADC) was great. I worked at the front desk attending to immigrants who came in for training on entrepreneurial skills or for our first-time home buyer workshop, and learned about the ways ADC provides financial support to its clients. It was a great experience because this is the same kind of work that I would like to do in my country as well. It was joyful in a way that 20 hours were not enough for me. I could take longer learning and experiencing that great feeling that I had when helping others.
The various concerns I had changed as I got the rare chance to serve as a tutor at ‘DC Reads’ in Washington, DC. The initial picture I had in my mind was that of a class filled with students and I myself, standing amongst them as a stranger, struggling to teach them the basics of English language and mathematics. But DC Reads was far beyond what I had expected; the system they followed assigned two students per tutor, which helped in developing a strong bond and a much better understanding for both the students and the tutor.
Esau and Christopher were two kids that changed my perspective on education. I was able to realize the fact that being a tutor was not just about imparting knowledge, but also involves learning from your pupils. I was able to understand how children of such a young age perceived the various new things they saw all around them, and how they considered each word of knowledge from their teachers with great respect and enthusiasm. The energy and joy the kids had was enough to power me up for the whole day. Teaching them and seeing them learn how to read and write was more than a refreshing look into one’s own childhood.
Esau and Christopher are just two lucky students who got the chance to receive an education. This is not the case in all parts of the world. There is a major portion of children who are deprived of basic education. It was only when I got the chance to be a tutor that I was truly able to understand the importance and impact that education has on a child and the society in which he/she grows. Education is not just about reading new books or understanding basic concepts and principles; rather, it is allowing the student to realize the true potential within and to fire up the spark of imagination and creativity.
Before departing to India, I got a letter from DC reads. It was a goodbye postcard. I opened it up and it read, “ Thank you, Joe, for teaching us to read and write” – Esau, Christopher.