“That’s really far away! How long did it take you to get here?” asked the children.
As LSA senior Caitlin Patterson and the rest of her group pointed to Michigan on a map, the children from the local Boys and Girls Club listened as the group explained the many miles they traveled —by car — for a day and a half to get to the Apache Reservation in New Mexico, their home for the next week.
Patterson and the rest of the group was a part of a University student service project called Alternative Spring Break (ASB), which is part of a nation-wide movement of service spring break opportunities, where students travel across America, working with different people and learning about different cultures. Started at the University in 1990, ASB began by sending 15 students to two locations in Michigan and has now expanded, sending over 500 students to over 40 sites each year.
During spring break last year, Patterson had spent one week with the Mescalero Tribe of the Apache Indians — one week to experience their culture and an opportunity to realize the complexities that define the current state of the Apache people. Yet as stark as some of these truths were, the redeeming evidence of a strong community remained. Traces of a group of people that truly cared about one another.
“The community that I was involved with was one of the strongest that I’ve ever been involved with,” Patterson said. “Despite the fact that they are impoverished and they are dealing with alcoholism and teenage pregnancies, it was one of the most vibrant communities that I’ve ever seen because people take care of each other.”
Before she left on her trip, Patterson began the trip possessing little knowledge of Native American issues. “I went out there incredibly ignorant,” Patterson said. “I’m still pretty bad, but at least conscious of it.”
While Patterson described the isolation of the tribe and her dismay at how they were reduced to a tourist attraction, the group’s time with the Mescalero tribe, in essence, was to experience the richness and vastness of a culture that was indeed quite vibrantly alive.
“Everyone we talked to was so friendly and so involved in the community. Our experience was of a group of people coming together to support one another and to make sure that their children were taken care of in every way (and) to thrive individually, as a community and culturally,” Patterson said.
Engineering senior Daniel Tan spent 30 hours traveling in two minivans with his team that went to El Paso, Texas to work at the Annunciation House — a refuge site for illegal immigrants from Central and South America. Although Tan, an international student from Singapore, was able to see the struggles of the United States through the lens of a third party, his experience was similar to Patterson’s.
“I was really touched by how everyone — despite the fact that we were all so different — cared so much about the issue. Just talking to them and finding out about the social injustices made me realize that our differences aren’t that far from each other,” Tan said. “The one thing that connects us all is that we’re human and that we care about the people around us.”
When Tan and his team arrived in El Paso, an illegal immigrant had just been shot dead by a border patrol officer. Emotional intensity lingered, as fear still remained in the hearts of many incarcerated illegal immigrants. “None of us in the group knew this man, but we still felt this sense of humanity,” said Tan. “We all wanted to go to the vigil to share in it together.”
Two students, two stories
“It’s been my experience, that everyone everywhere has similar values. Everyone wants us to take care of their families,” Patterson said. “I learned that we need to take better care of each other as individuals and as a society. People genuinely want to — at least in the community that I was in. They want to take care of each other.”
“We don’t exactly help them much,” said Tan. “But I think the most important thing of all is the fact that they know we are willing to take the time to learn about their experiences—to share our stories with them, and for them to share their stories with us. I think being there for one week; all we could do was be a friend.”
Patterson agreed with Tan. “We weren’t there to tell them of our experience; we were there to learn from their community and their cultural experience. It’s an exchange of stories on a human level — rather than a cultural level.
Two groups of students, driving relentlessly in small puttering minivans to seemingly foreign places, were hundreds of miles away from the realities of books and exams and the debauchery of bikini-clad spring breaks in Cancun Mexico and the comforts of an Ann Arbor life they’d become accustomed to. Together, they discovered the power of people, and the intimate realization of humanity.
“It’s not my experience,” Patterson said. “I don’t know it — but I can learn from it.”
To be more involved with these projects or to receive more information about Alternative Spring Break on campus, visit their website at www.umich.edu/~volunteer, e-mail the ASB Leadership Team at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (734) 936-2437.