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AWB and candy canes for my first winter break

Musbah Shaheen

Unlike many other students, I have been dreading winter break for quite some time. For most students Winter Break means spending time with family. For me it meant staying on campus for three cold weeks. That I couldn’t do, so I planned ahead of time and applied for Alternative Winter Break. That was one decision I’ll never regret.

I was introduced to AWB during the Student Org Fair that was held at the beginning of the school year. The Org fair serves as a hub for all the organizations on campus that do various service and recreational activities. It’s how I got to work with all the organizations I’m working with now.

AWB is a student-run organization on campus that organizes and leads service trips throughout the US and abroad. This is part of the initiative of taking away time of school break to give back to the community.  This year, ten groups were sent to ten different states with completely different themes. What brings all these groups together is their desire to serve, learn and grow.

Participation in AWB was as simple as filling out an application which included expressing why one wants to do service and which sites he or she prefers to go on. You can’t, however, decide which site you get to go on. You only rank your top sites and the organization will place you in the trip that fits you best. This includes a cause that you can relate to and a group of participants that you have had limited contact with, meaning that almost all the people you will meet on this trip are strangers at first, but best friends around the end. This makes the site reveal even more exciting.

AWB site reveal includes a scavenger hunt that will keep you running between different destinations on campus doing all kinds of good deeds. For my group, we ended up going around Stevenson Library to give random compliments to people. We finally got to a room in Buttrick Hall where our site leaders were awaiting, and lo and behold, We were going to Atlanta on a Homelessness and Poverty site!

After the site reveal, we had weekly meetings to prepare for the trip. The meetings included ice-breakers that helped introduce us to each other, and information about homelessness in Atlanta. These meetings were great study breaks and helped prepare us for the actual service that we were going to do in Atlanta. More importantly, we frequently returned to the ideas discussed during these meetings on the actual trip to find some of our stereotypes challenged, changed or the same.

The trip itself was exhausting yet very rewarding. We worked with a few organizations that deal with the issue of homelessness, and as there are multiple reasons for homelessness, there are many approaches to solving it. Some organizations were religious, some were not. Some tried to create a community amongst people experiencing homelessness, and some tackled practical issues like finding food and remaining safe. Throughout the week we got in contact with so many homeless people, many of whom became friends. I distinctly remember walking in downtown Atlanta to find Mike, one of the guys we met during the trip, playing guitar on the side walk. It was kinda cool to stop and chat with him.

The most interesting part of the trip is Urban Plunge, which involved living on the streets for 48 hours. Every guy was paired with a girl and the task was to survive being on the street in Atlanta. This experience can be very controversial because people assume that we are appropriating a sub-culture, but I saw it as an opportunity to bring us closer to feeling what it’s like to be on the street with no steady source of food or shelter. The experience was eye opening and I definitely appreciated the comfort of my bed after that!

me and Abby, my site leader, friend and plunge partner!

AWB is not just about service. It is also about creating a community and making friends. Life maps were another memorable part of the trip. Each member of the team was given the chance to share the most important events in their lives from the day they are born to the present day. So much of the life maps was profound, sometimes surprising, but we listened to each other, laughed and cried together. This whole experience transformed us from 11 strangers to an awesome group of friends. Each day we cooked our own dinners and reflected on the work we had done. The discussions were interesting and sometimes would turn into heated debates. Nevertheless, it improved our understanding of the issues at hand and helped bring different ideas to the table.

Finally, another important aspect of these trips is that they are absolutely affordable. Financial aid is offered to students who need it, which makes service and friendship accessible to every member of the Vanderbilt Community.

My trip to Atlanta is by far the highlight of my Winter Break. I must be honest, I was thrilled when we were driving back and the GPS lady announced getting to Vanderbilt Place. I missed campus and, as much as I loved doing service, I really missed being here. AWB taught me so much about myself and others. I made good friends and unforgettable memories.

My favorite group in the world!

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