More than 25 Buena Vista University (BVU) students, faculty and staff participated in three AWOL (Alternative Week of Off-site Learning) trips during spring break, enabling them to volunteer their time and service with a variety of people and programs.

This year marked BVU’s 20th AWOL experience, which has led to more than 760 volunteers worldwide and an estimated 36,060 hours of service – furthering its mission to immerse students in different cultures, heighten social awareness, and advocate life-long social action through service on a local, regional, and international level.

“AWOL provides students with a glimpse of the world that many people do not get to see,” said Dr. Ashley Farmer-Hanson, assistant dean for student life and director of civic engagement. “They see people at their most vulnerable stages in life and work alongside of them. These individuals let us in to their world to learn more about their community, social justice issues, and to provide us with a new outlook on life.”

To ensure the AWOL program’s long-term impact on the student and the Storm Lake community, students research their service areas, identify a local need, serve to understand it better, and address it using new skills learned on their AWOL trips and by engaging in local service projects.

“Students’ lives are transformed and their outlook on how they project their future careers and their role in society changes,” added Farmer-Hanson, who also served as a site advisor on the trip to Los Fierros, Nicaragua. “It’s a wonderful transformation to see in a few months of leadership training, service over spring break, and post-service in Storm Lake once they return.”

This year’s trips focused on sustainable social and economic development in Los Fierros, Nicaragua; human trafficking in urban communities in Atlanta; and tackling hunger and food sustainability in Waco, Texas.

Here are more details about the trips and a selection of comments from 2018 AWOL participants:

Sustainable social and economic development in Los Fierros, Nicaragua

Ten students traveled to Los Fierros, Nicaragua, and served with the Panorama Service Expedition, an organization that promotes sustainable social and economic development projects. Throughout the week, the group immersed themselves in the area’s culture, serving on a farm alongside locals helping prepare grounds for planting coffee trees, painting a civilian’s home, and playing with children in the community.

Alyssa Donnelly, a junior strategic public relations major from Council Bluffs and one of the student site leaders, said interacting with the people of Los Fierros was a trip highlight.

“It was a passionate, driven community,” said Donnelly. “The people worked together in any circumstance, and something that I was absolutely stunned by was the way they created relationships with one another. The community of people doesn’t judge or focus on the big things; instead, they focus on the smaller things and what is important to them.”

Others students who participated in the social and economic development AWOL trip were Kathryn Tyykila, a junior elementary education major from Canby, Minn.; Aubrey Anderson, a junior communication studies from Worthington, Minn.; Abby Ross, a senior social work and psychology double major from Council Bluffs; Megan Wassom, a junior biomedical Sciences major from Royal; Lindsay Blackford, a senior psychology and Spanish double major from Council Bluffs; Madison Yilek, a junior art and graphic design double major from Belle Plaine; Emma Hartz, a senior business major from Grinnell; Jodi Tish, a senior accounting and business double major from Grinnell; and Payton Yilek; a junior business and accounting double major from Belle Plaine.

Advisors for the experience were Ashley Farmer-Hanson, assistant dean for student life and director of civic engagement at BVU; and Mark Shea, director of student success and assistant dean of student affairs.

Human trafficking in urban communities in Atlanta

Ten students traveled to Atlanta, where they served with a variety of causes, including 4Sarah, a faith-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower change in the life direction of women and girls who are victims of sex trafficking by offering a holistic approach.

Throughout the week, the group had the opportunity to interact with women who have been trafficked and with victims who are currently in the industry that need additional assistance escaping.

Tiffany Hull, a senior criminology/criminal justice and psychology double major from Perry, said she was able to apply classroom knowledge by day two of the experience, when the group had the chance to investigate and help women who are in the human trafficking industry.

“That day, some members of our group found a sex trafficking ring, and we had the opportunity to report it to the local FBI unit which was pretty amazing,” said Hull, who was one of the student site leaders.

Others students who participated in the human trafficking AWOL trip were Presley Shumate, a senior business, accounting, and Spanish triple major from Milo; Jolee Linden, a sophomore English major from Le Mars; Emily Van Donselaar, a junior social work major from New Sharon; Jacob Jensen, a senior business major from Badger; Becca Frantz, a sophomore criminology/criminal justice and political science double major from Des Moines; Kaitlyn Werner, a junior social work major from Manchester; Bailie Meissner, a junior exercise science major from Manchester; Susan Letsch, a senior social work and criminology/criminal justice double major from Le Mars; and Tamara Dean, a sophomore biomedical science major from Red Oak.

“I am now able to picture what the industry of sex and human trafficking looks like,” added Hull.

“I also got to see how the organizations we worked with have impacted women’s lives and hear amazing testimonies that will stick with me forever.”

Advisors for this experience were Mike Walker, university counselor for BVU’s Office of Student Affairs; and Brittany Garling, assistant professor of education at BVU.

Tackling hunger and food sustainability in Waco, Texas.

Six students traveled to Waco, Texas, and served with World Hunger Relief, Inc., a Christian organization committed to the alleviation of food insecurity and malnutrition through sustainable agriculture and community development. The organization works to bring light to the issues of hunger focusing on the low-income, disabled, and elderly communities.

Throughout the week, the group had the opportunity to experience circumstances that are common in hunger-stricken and impoverished countries. This included residing in the “Nicaragua House,” which was built to replicate middle-class housing in Nicaragua and included a tin roof and four cement walls. The group also helped tend community garden and participated in a number of simulations while being educated on the different aspects of hunger, sustainability, and food responsibility.

“We are always able to hear about the different lives that people live on a daily basis, but it is an experience all its own to live it for a week,” said Amanda Miley, a junior biology major from Independence, Mo. “We faced our small encounter with hunger and then were able to come back home and eat a nice meal, whereas people in hunger-ridden areas are living that every day.”

Others students who participated in the hunger and food sustainability AWOL trip were Kassidy

Chandler, a senior exercise science major from Casey; Hannah Reno, a first year elementary education major from Goldfield; Kyoko Mishima, a junior digital media major from Japan; Justin Graf, a junior biomedical sciences major from Center Point; and Caroline Marlow, a senior exceptional student service and instruction major from Decorah.

“Volunteerism allows insight into the meaning and causes of why communities need service,” added Miley, who was one of the student site leaders. “AWOL and other service opportunities are important because there is a lot that needs to be happen in order to create beneficial change in local and global communities.”

Advisors for this experience were Ken Meissner, director of spiritual life at BVU; and Kristi Davis, assistant director of career and personal development and internship coordinator at BVU.