Learning & Serving Over Fall Break

Monday, Nov 25, 2019
by Benjamin Gelman ’22, Pace Center Student Correspondent

What do the healthcare experiences of Native Americans and community solutions to education gaps in Chicago have in common? They were both the topics of exploration for Breakout Princeton trips over fall break with the John H. Pace, Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement.

“Service trips are important because they allow us to learn about an issue in the context of the environment where it occurs,” said sophomore Qing Huang, leader of the “Academic Disparity in America: The Public School System and Community Solutions” trip. “The trips allow us to acknowledge our ignorance and privilege, and give us an opportunity to take what we learn and apply it to our lives in the future.”

Over fall break at the end of October, 20 undergraduate students took part in Breakout Princeton, which seeks to expand students’ education through immersive service-learning experiences that engage with critical issues facing communities across the nation, and inspire sustained commitment back on campus. In addition, more than 25 students, including members of the Princeton women's volleyball team, participated in Breakout Local, serving with the Princeton Nursery School, creating a chalk mural for Community House at 58 Prospect Avenue, and learning about the local community while remaining on campus for break. 

During the trip to Chicago, led by Huang and fellow sophomore Natasia Clevak, students focused on the Chicago Public School system and the numerous initiatives the district and the local community have taken in order to improve the quality of education in the city.

Breakout Princeton trip participants meeting with 826CHI.

Breakout Princeton trip participants in Chicago met with 826CHI, a writing and tutoring support center, to learn about their work in the community.

The Chicago trip visited a variety of nonprofits and organizations that work for a better education system there, such as LEAP Innovation, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting personalized learning for all students. “Our biggest takeaway from LEAP Innovations was the impact personalized learning can have on student engagement,” said Huang. “Personal learning is built on the premise of tailoring the learning experience to the interests and skills of the individual rather than a whole classroom.”

The students also met with 826CHI, a writing and tutoring support center for underserved children, and UChicago’s Consortium on School Research, which according to a blog post from trip participants, “acts as a neutral party with the objective of identifying the factors that are most critical to educational success, and to allow policymakers to focus on implementing change based on those research-backed findings.”

Additionally, the participants studied Chicago’s public school system through meeting representatives from Teach for America and visiting an elementary school affected by a teachers’ strike. “We also got to hear about the details about the structure of the public school system, such as principals only getting a high degree of autonomy when they reach high-enough levels of success, measured by attendance, test scores, and GPA,” Huang added.

Huang and Klevak described how they were surprised by “the impact implementing restorative justice in schools could have on the students, as well as the extent to which factors like attendance, suspensions, and detentions in ninth grade can have on the probability of someone graduating high school and even college,” said Huang. “The fact that such seemingly small factors at such a young age can drastically impact one’s future was extremely surprising to us.”

The other trip, “Healthcare in the Homeland: Exploring Native American Experiences of the US Healthcare System,” was led by seniors Brandon Ward and Natasha Thomas, and aimed to explore Native American experiences with healthcare in the US, including both the prominent issues and the solutions being worked towards. The students visited Tulsa, Oklahoma as well as Osage Nation, a Native American reservation just outside of Tulsa.

Breakout Princeton trip participants at the Osage Nation Visitors Center.

Outside Tulsa, Breakout Princeton trip team explored the art of the Osage Nation Visitors Center and spoke with Osage Elder Janet Emde, who shared how Osage history is being shared through art forms like ballet and beading.

The students met with various experts, such as Osage Nation Tribal Congressman Eli Potts, who discussed Osage Nation’s complicated and unique history in relation to the US government and other tribal nations in Oklahoma, and Councilwoman Vanessa Harper, who spoke to the participants about her constituents' struggle to maintain access to healthy food.

“Native American history and the current experiences of Native people is a major piece missing from my education, including at Princeton, so I wanted to change that by going on this trip,” said Thomas. Thomas also emphasized the knowledge and openness of the community partners that the students interacted with, saying “it was really an honor to be there and hear from everyone we met with.”

As for the main takeaways, Thomas noted that while there remain serious challenges in the area of Native American healthcare solutions, there is hope in the form of “more and more tribally run clinics opening up... many young Native Americans aspiring to become physicians, and growing solutions to food deserts and issues with underfunding. Seeing the overwhelmingly positive moves towards change has been amazing.”

As for applying the knowledge acquired on the Breakout trips back on campus, both groups have begun making post-trip plans. “We are currently working with Charlotte Collins [Pace Center assistant director and staff adviser to Community House], to start a new program that will focus on writing/tutoring and will be modeled after a community partner we had met with [826CHI],” said Huang. Speaking for the Oklahoma trip, Thomas said that the group “has talked about possibly partnering with Natives at Princeton to get behind some of their existing efforts, possibly bringing a speaker to campus or something along those lines.”

Applications to go on a Breakout Princeton trip over spring break in March 2020 are now open and are due on Sunday, Dec. 8. The spring trips include exploration of the opioid crisis in Nashau, NH and the intersections between big tech and community in San Francisco, CA. 

A member of the Princeton women's volleyball team plays with a child at Princeton Nursery School outside.

Members of the Princeton University women's volleyball team volunteered at Princeton Nursery School during Breakout Local over fall break.