Two female students covered in colorful Navajo blankets.

Students, Staff Volunteer in New Mexico During Break

Students and staff pose with a wheelbarrow and tools in the Dine' (Navajo) Nation. Photo by Angela Gonzaga.

Students and staff enjoy spending time in the Dine' (Navajo) Nation. Photo by Angela Gonzaga. Click on the image to see more photos on SJSU's Facebook.

By Sarah Kyo, Public Affairs Assistant

New Mexico may not be some people’s idea of a spring break destination. For 17 SJSU students and two trip advisers, though, the state known as The Land of Enchantment served as the setting for five days of service learning.

The Cesar  E. Chavez Community Action Center, a division of Associated Students, offers students many opportunities for community involvement. One of its programs is Alternative Spring Break, an annual trip in which students and staff travel to a new city, state, or country, volunteering their time to work side by side with locals.

For this year’s spring break, the community action center worked with nonprofit group Via International to set up a trip to the Dine’ (Navajo) Nation. Participants read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie, the 2010 Campus Reading Program selection, in preparation for this visit.

Program Manager Maribel Martinez said this trip gave participants a chance to experience nature, talk about indigenious people, and have exposure to issues such as water settlement disputes.  At a dinner in the A.S. House, some of the students talked about water conservation on the reservation.

“A lot of us took one shower per week,” said Jessica Johnson, an environmental studies major.

The students were assigned to several service projects, including building a shed and porch, thinning out trees, clearing weeds, and putting rocks around cacti so people won’t hurt themselves. Throughout the trip, the students had opportunities to learn more about Dine’ culture, participate in traditions, and have time for reflection.

Volunteers woke up at 6:30 or 7 a.m. every day to greet the sun, said Katie Louey, a sociology major with a concentration in community change. Near the end of the trip, they visited Tse’Bit’Ai (Shiprock), a rock formation at the Dine’ Nation. Many of the students described going into a trance while walking toward the rock.

Adessa Kiryakos, a behavorial science / sociology major, described having peace of mind during the trip.

“We came in for the service learning thing, but we came out with so much more,” Kiryakos said.

Psychology major Sascha Brown plans to return and help out at the reservation. A couple of the students applied the trip toward class assignments. Victoria Gomez, a sociology major with a concentration in community change, wrote a 15-page ethnography for an anthropology course. Johnson took landscape pictures for a photography class. See photos of these students in action on SJSU’s Facebook page.

Students submit applications in October for the following spring’s trip. Selected applicants participate in group interviews before final decisions are made. Costs for the trip were partially subsidized by Associated Students and through students’ fundraising efforts.

Program Manager Maribel Martinez previewed the 2012 Alternative Spring Break trip to San Diego, which will give students a firsthand opportunity to learn more about border-related issues. Student participants will receive an exclusive tour of border patrol facilities and work with community organizations.

For more information about Alternative Spring Break, view the Cesar E. Chavez Community Action Center’s website.#