Adventure, growth and finding direction through Alternative Reading Week
Service-learning programs are a great to learn about the world around us. They encourage personal growth and integrate meaningful actions with learning and reflection. These opportunities create a balanced approach to volunteer service and can enrich the university experience by offering additional learning on social issues.
Alternative Reading Week (ARW) programs are just one of the service-learning opportunities offered at the U of M. ARW programs take place during winter reading week, and are offered in Winnipeg, Belize and Ecuador. ARW Belize focuses on land rights and food security, and gives students the opportunity to learn from members of an Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ community. Faculty of Science student Taylor Morriseau participated in ARW Belize in 2014. We sat down with her recently to learn about her experience.
How did you get involved in Alternative Reading Week Belize?
I’d always been interested in traveling abroad, but was hesitant due to a lack of previous international exposure. After coming across posters advertising Alternative Reading Week programs, I was excited by the opportunity to travel with like-minded individuals in a safe and inclusive setting. To me, ARW Belize felt like a logical first international experience. With ARW Belize, I was intrigued by the unique concept of service-learning and the reciprocal exchange of knowledge and cultures. This is very different from the large number of ‘voluntourism’ programs out there, many of which appear well-intentioned at first but ultimately work from a privileged position of “helping others.” This can lack depth for both the community and the traveler. I was interested in doing more than that.
Why did you choose ARW Belize?
As an Indigenous person, Belize was a natural fit to learn firsthand about social, political and environmental issues facing Indigenous communities outside of Canada, and particularly about Indigenous perspectives on food security and environmental concerns. Given the prominent history of the Maya people, I was intrigued to learn more about these issues and the way they parallel our own complexities at home. The celebration of culture was also contagious and rekindled a sense of pride in my own heritage.
What did you do while on location?
In the community of San Ignacio, we developed a community garden to support a local school striving to improve student nutrition and knowledge of Indigenous foods. In collaboration with the Center for Engaged Learning Abroad, we traveled with local youth to farms, explored agricultural techniques and translated these skills into our own gardening and farming practices. We also took part in incredible opportunities like hiking to the top of an ancient Maya Ruin, touring the world-renowned Belize Zoo and sampling delectable foods from the homes of local residents.
How did you plan for this experience?
At first I was uncertain whether I could afford the excursion. But with savings built up from summer employment and a bursary provided by the program, I met the costs without negatively affecting my budget and education. Any initial doubts I had about international travel were eased by the pre-departure training we received on topics like intercultural communication, risk management, travel health and community engagement. With this training and background knowledge about the community, I felt well-prepared to deal with “culture shock” and taking on my foreign surroundings.
What impact has service-learning had on you?
Service-learning in Belize was a journey of self-awareness, cultural awakening and an opportunity to grow as a global citizen. Most notably, it shifted my education by increasing my awareness of international development and Indigenous issues, an awareness that has since been reflected in my community involvement in Winnipeg. The exposure also renewed my sense of appreciation for many luxuries that we, as Canadian city-dwellers, may take for granted. Plus, sharing experiences ranging from working tirelessly in a garden in the sweltering heat to relaxing on a beach in crystal blue water laid the foundation for lifelong friendships.
What have you done since ARW Belize, and what’s next?
Since ARW Belize, I’ve re-evaluated my course of study to include working for social change at home. With groups on campus like Create H2O and the Indigenous Circle of Empowerment, I’ve immersed myself in research that addresses access to clean drinking water in First Nations communities, while also building my leadership skills. In the near future, I hope to continue tackling water access problems on a global stage at the University of Oxford. Recently, as I reflected on my experiences at the U of M for my Rhodes Scholarship application, I realized ARW Belize was the impetus for my commitment to working toward sustainable, culturally-appropriate solutions here in Canada.
Based on your experience, what advice would you give other students?
I would encourage all students to partake in service-learning abroad. The exposure is unrivalled by any textbook, and the memories will last a lifetime. Students have countless avenues of study, but service-learning can open doors to new interests and help to uncover your inner motivations. In just ten days you’ll learn so much about yourself and your perspective on the world. Students should seize the opportunity for themselves to truly grasp how life-changing a service-learning experience can be.
Needs-based bursaries are available for ARW Belize and Ecuador, and ARW Winnipeg is free and open to all U of M students. To find out more information or apply for an Alternative Reading Week program at the University of Manitoba, visit the Service-Learning website: umanitoba.ca/student/servicelearning
Application deadlines have been extended to Thursday, December 15, 2016. Apply via Community Link.