VERMILLION, S.D. – As a college student, spending a day playing with dogs at an animal shelter is a great stress reliever; knowing you are doing service work to benefit the community makes it even more valuable. It’s one of the many reasons Jenny Welu became involved with the University of South Dakota’s Alternative Week of Off-campus Learning (AWOL).
"I thought it sounded like a great way to meet new people and experience new things," said Welu, who volunteered for a weekend at a local animal shelter. "I ended up loving it. AWOL gave me an experience I wouldn't happen upon in everyday life. I immersed myself in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by people I didn't know, and I was glad I did."
AWOL was founded at USD in 2004. The program focuses on service-learning, meaning students learn about social issues facing the country and the world while doing service work. Participants are provided with basic education about site-specific issues prior to the trip, learn about those issues through first-hand experiences on the trip and are challenged to synthesize their experiences afterward. Service trips are taken on weekends throughout the year and over winter, spring and summer breaks.
Kim Albracht, AWOL advisor at the University of South Dakota, said the program broadens horizons. "Our student leaders make really great opportunities happen at USD that help expose their peers to service-learning. These are experiences that broaden participants' perspectives on social issues and how to drive change by making community involvement a priority in their life choices."
This winter break, 85 USD students are participating in the eight different trips, with each focusing on a different social issue, including:
- Urban poverty in Kansas City,Mo.
- Health and food insecurity in Charlotte, N.C.
- LGBTQ advocacy in Jacksonville, Fla.
- Housing in San Raymundo, Guatemala
- Environment and animal protection in New Orleans, La.
- Homelessness in Detroit, Mich.
- Education in Chicago, Ill.
- Suicide prevention in Missoula, Mt.
USD senior Rachel Johannsen has participated in AWOL since her freshman year. She participated in two different service trips before leading her first trip last year. This winter break she is co-leading the trip to Jacksonville, Florida focusing on LGBTQ+ advocacy.
"I'm excited to make a difference throughout the city and spread love," Johannsen said. "I'm excited to fight back against the hate that is spreading throughout the entire country. I care deeply about this social issue and I’m excited to be able to teach my participants about it and to further their understanding of why it matters even if they aren't necessarily a part of the LGBTQ+ community themselves. It gives students the opportunity to gain a new perspective by travelling to a new place, learning about social issues and then taking what they've learned to bring it back to South Dakota."
The current president of AWOL, Andrew Koch, also joined AWOL his freshman year. "Joining AWOL is a chance to learn about yourself, develop leadership skills and become part of a larger movement of people across the nation who are committed to improving their communities. AWOL has been the defining experience of my undergraduate career at USD."