March 26, 2007 — “The way you live your life is inherently a political act,” quotes honors student Katie Trieu, referring to a statement posed at the beginning of a unique semester-long course that took her and 18 other students to the heart of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction in New Orleans. The honors service-learning course opened their eyes to the economic, political, social, and health issues related to the disaster. The trip to New Orleans brought the issues home.
The one-week trip was led by Marshall Welch, Director of the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center and instructor of the semester-long course “Katrina: Eye of the Storm” (Katrina). The course incorporated service-learning to give the students a hands-on opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to community renovation.
Made possible by a generous $5,000 donation from Honors Program Director Martha Bradley on behalf of the Honors Program, the trip to New Orleans spent the first week of October, 2006 working on house demolition in the devastated 8th and 9th Wards, but the focus was on much more than demolition
“Hurricane Katrina provided our nation a unique opportunity to critically re-examine cultural, economic, political, environmental and health-related issues associated with poverty and race,” notes Welch.
Working with RHINO-Rebuilding Hope in New Orleans-a project sponsored and hosted by St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church, students demolished homes down to the stud walls to enable home owners an opportunity to rebuild their homes. “They came face-to-face with immense poverty and the results of an overburdened bureaucracy,” Welch explains.
“When I came home, my friends asked me “How was New Orleans…was it great?'” states Trieu, a senior majoring in chemical engineering. “It was difficult. I’m still forming how I feel about it.” The difficulty was not in the physical act of demolishing homes, but in the raw exposure Trieu and her classmates had to the poverty, segregation and pronounced social injustice they witnessed. Interacting with those who lost everything from their homes to their family members and realizing that the disaster could have been prevented with a stronger model in place for civic engagement, the experience was a catalyst for Trieu and classmates to take their insights beyond New Orleans.
“Action is fine, it gets things done-roofs on houses and mold off walls,” explains Becca Wehunt, senior biology major and Katrina course participant. “But action without reflection stops there.” Wehunt and Trieu explained the model they used to process their experiences in New Orleans: “What? So what? Now what?” stressing the importance of the “So what?” and “Now what?” portions of the model.
“We were there, working with volunteers from all over the country who seemed surprised and impressed by the thought and reflection we put into what we were doing, surprised that there might be a bigger picture to the disaster that stemmed from the economic, social and cultural situation in New Orleans prior to the hurricane, and impressed that we were there not just to act, but to reflect on that situation,” Wehunt and Trieu said. They expressed that without reflecting on the “So What?” they were simply demolishing houses; without focusing on a “Now What?” they let the experience end with the course.
Six months later, in the aftermath of the Katrina service project, course participants are still digesting the experience. “Katrina was a catalyst for us all,” says Trieu, expressing that it served as an inspiration for how she intends to lead this year’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) service-learning trip to San Diego. Trieu’s trip, one of eight offered this year, will examine immigration and border issues for one week, March 17-24, in the greater San Diego area. “Katrina was so powerful. I had a charge to make ASB the same experience.” She says she is pushing to create better site leaders who are equipped to handle the high emotions ASB projects inspire and that she hopes to attract more site leaders who truly want to make an impact.
“Now What?” is the big question for all course participants. Zan Larsen, a senior majoring in political science and service-learning scholar, is answering that question with action. Taking her passion for civic engagement to the institutional level, Larsen is pushing the U to incorporate a civic engagement component into the curriculum, a result from the deeply-held belief that an engaged community could have lessened the impact of the storm in New Orleans and shortened the recovery period.
As a service-learning scholar, Larsen must complete 400 hours of community service, 10 credit hours of service-learning classes and a major integrative service project (ISP) that combines academics with concentrated community work. Larsen has dedicated her ISP to this cause. She is collaborating with an eight-member interdisciplinary task force comprised of university professors, graduate and undergraduate students from more than four colleges that will evaluate what is being done and what needs to be done at the U to incorporate the civic engagement component into the general curriculum.
“We have an American Institutions requirement in which we study history, economics or political science. They tell us about Martin Luther King, but they don’t help us learn how to be like Martin Luther King,” says Larsen, stressing the importance of institutional support in creating civic-minded graduates.
Happily, Larsen’s efforts have been met with enthusiasm and support. The only area in which she comes up short is time. Graduating this May, Larsen will leave the U before her efforts see fruition. In June she departs for Moldova, where she will continue to ask “What? So What? Now What?” as a volunteer for the U.S. Peace Corps, no doubt carrying with her the impact of Katrina and the aftermath of the need for community civic engagement.
For more information on “Katrina: The Eye of the Storm,” contact Marshall Welch in the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center at 801-585-7826 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional information on Alternative Spring Break may be found at http://www.asb.utah.edu/. For more information on the U’s Honors Program, visit http://www.honors.utah.edu/.