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USD AWOL students spend their winter break assisting national, international communities

VERMILLION, S.D. -- Seventy-five University of South Dakota students and five staff members spent winter break in seven different locations learning about social issues and serving in communities. The trips were planned and coordinated by student site leaders in the Alternative Week of Off-campus Learning (AWOL) student organization. AWOL encourages active citizenship through immersing students in educational service-learning experiences, exposing them to diverse social issues, and encouraging students to apply the wisdom gained through these experiences to their daily lives.

One AWOL group spent a week in Guatemala, building an entire house for a family in need. The participants were student site leader Nathaniel Steinlicht of Milbank, S.D.; Morgan Moe, Sioux Falls, S.D.; Marissa Reis of Hartley, Iowa; Jessica Brownell, Pukwana, S.D.; Hailee Eisenbeisz, Hayti, S.D.; Travis Cownie, Lennox, S.D.; Sydney Strait, Watertown, S.D.; Hans Tvedt, Volga, S.D.; Vonda Cotton, Parker, S.D.; Breanna Helland, Frederick, S.D.; Kelli Batterman, Tripp, S.D.; Katelyn Heisinger, Tripp, S.D.; Delmi Cuellar, Sioux Falls, S.D.; and USD Global Learning Advisor Anthony Mandela.

In Orlando, Fla., AWOL participants worked with Give Kids the World, a 70-acre nonprofit “storybook” resort, where children with life-threatening illnesses and their families are treated to weeklong, cost-free fantasy vacations. USD Coordinator of Prevention Service Lauren Schurr said, “Volunteering at Give Kids The World is such an uplifting experience. Seeing the kids’ smiles and their family’s appreciation for our help is heartwarming. It’s great being able to assist in making kids’ dreams come true.” Additional participants included student site leaders Emily Pauli and Lexy Pillatzki, both of Milbank, S.D.; Becca Gaikowski, Waubay, S.D.; Kelsey Montange, Sioux City, Iowa; Kristin Pollema of Brandon, S.D.; Will Whitlock, Watertown, S.D.; Alexandra Eriksen, Grand Island, Neb.; Clay Lippert, Sioux Falls, S.D.; Spencer Peters, Wagner, S.D.; Katie Ludemann, Pierre, S.D.; and Jarrett Fowler, Sturgis, S.D.

Katie Barnett and Brook Doty, both of Wagner, SD, led an AWOL trip to Charlotte, where they engaged participants in city-wide service projects that focused on health and food insecurity. The group blogged: “It was a very eye opening experience to be able to understand how hard it can be to find resources, shelter, and food on a daily basis.” Other trip participants were Jared Waltz, Sioux Falls, S.D.; Emily Hattouni, Lakeville, Minn.; Blaze Giroux of Armour, S.D.; Kelsey VanderPoel, Harrisburg, S.D.; Ashlyn Pudenz, Papillion, Neb.; Brianna Brage, Watertown, S.D.; Taylor Hyde, Pierre, S.D.; Alyssa Matson of Marshall, Minn.; Aspen Olsen, Hartington, Neb.; and USD Staff Counselor Connie Birgen.

AWOL Houston spent a week in service learning about youth health and development in the region. In just a single day of the trip, participants prepared more than 3,000 meals for children in need. The trip was led by student site leaders Geralyn Palmer of Sioux Falls, S.D. and Dana Vandenberg of Harrisburg, S.D. Additional participants included Annika Hindbjorgen or Sioux Falls; Erik Burnison of Huron, S.D.; Rachael Grenier of Omaha, Neb.; Matthew Preszler of Menno, S.D.; Aaron Fleischer of Comfrey, Minn.; Gina Soukup of Lake Andes, S.D.; Emma Smith, Jackson, Minn.; Krystal Halter, Brandon, S.D.; Morgan Ohm of Le Mars, Iowa; and USD Coordinator for Academic Engagement Emily Dykstra.

In Springfield, Mo., AWOL participants learned about issues of poverty in the community while serving with Ozarks Food Harvest, Habitat for Humanity, and Harmony House. The trip was led by student site leader Tanya Ochsner of Hartford, S.D., and included nine other participants: Shaya Kellen, Sioux Falls, S.D.; Mikaela Anderson, Wagner, S.D.; Shane Hansen, Hot Springs, S.D.; Jessica Honetschlager, Lucan, Minn.; Allison Kellen, Granville, Iowa; Taylor Bormann, Parkston, S.D.; Janelle Galpin, Vermillion, S.D.; Kylee Ligtenberg, Wagner, S.D.; and USD Assistant Director for Academic Engagement Chris Stockdale.

AWOL co-president Ashley McKeown of Sioux Falls, S.D., also planned and led a student service trip to Chicago where trip participants spent a week with men and women recently released from prison who are completing the transition process. Additional participants included Sheldon Moysis, Freeman, S.D.; Zach Schulte, Sioux Falls, S.D.; Cassy Jerrett, Minneapolis, Minn.; Kennidy Asche, Scotland, S.D.; Kelsey Van Patten, Sioux City, Iowa; Jesse Zarmbinski, Hills, Minn.; Samantha Zoss, Beresford, S.D.; Morgan Huss, Jordan, Minn.; and USD Graduate Assistant Lucia Carlson.

AWOL Indianapolis – led by student site leader Sarah Schmidt of Sioux Falls, S.D. – spent a week in service to art and music education programs throughout the community, including painted murals that will be displayed at venues across the country. Additional participants included Josh Wiley of Storm Lake, Iowa; Jenny Welu, Milroy, Minn.; Brody Krogman, Sioux Falls, S.D.; Michael Hoffman, Sioux Falls, S.D.; Chesney Garnos, Wall, S.D.; Sarah Pearson, Yankton, S.D.; Melida Alfaro, Sioux Falls, S.D.; Rachel Johannsen, Milbank, S.D.; Haley Purves, Le Mars, Iowa; Kaela Dejong, Madison, S.D.; and USD Graduate Assistant James Cooper.


Housed in the Center for Academic Engagement and Global Engagement, AWOL (Alternative Week of Off-Campus Learning) offers students the opportunity to combine community service with education during academic breaks. Prior to departure, students participate in six weeks of educational training. By utilizing experiences and education, AWOL enables students to become active citizens whose community becomes a priority in their everyday life and provides them with avenues for continued community involvement and learning.


USD’s Center for Academic & Global Engagement (CAGE) gives students the chance to gain real-world experience and knowledge and connect with their community and the larger world. CAGE offers academically based opportunities that create skills employers and graduate schools seek. Among them: off-campus service-learning programs, studying abroad, student exchange, undergraduate research and nationally competitive awards and fellowships. CAGE also provides support to international students with cultural and academic adjustments as well as immigration concerns.


Founded in 1862 and the first university in the Dakotas, the University of South Dakota is the only public liberal arts university in the state, with 202 undergraduate and 78 graduate programs in the College of Arts & Sciences, School of Education, Knudson School of Law, Sanford School of Medicine, School of Health Sciences, Beacom School of Business and College of Fine Arts. With an enrollment of nearly 10,000 students and more than 400 faculty, USD has a 16:1 student/faculty ratio, and it ranks among the best in academics and affordability. USD’s 18 athletic programs compete at the NCAA Division I level.

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Hanna DeLange
USD News