In the dark space underneath my bed are hiking shoes, a sleeping bag, and a bulky purple duffel bag, all waiting patiently for me to unearth them upon the arrival of spring break. To say that I am excited to drag myself out of bed at 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning, cram my belongings and myself onto a coach bus with fifty other sleepy college students, and tackle a 14-hour drive to North Carolina would be an overstatement. Yet, to say that I didn’t know what I signed up for would be false.
The Appalachia Volunteers Program focuses on intention while preparing its members to go to its various service destinations. As hundreds of students flood into Eagle’s Nest each Sunday night, they engage in reflections and lectures about the intersection of service and humility. Appa’s motto—Love, Learn, Serve”—is drilled into the heads of its members, with particular emphasis on the notion of loving and learning. In the year and a half that I have participated in Appa, this foundational aspect has been unwavering, and its repetition is necessary.
Thus, I signed up for Appa again this year, not because I wanted to Spring Break somewhere warm or because I thought that subjecting myself to physical exertion and long bus rides would build character. I signed up because the core of Appa’s mission resonated with me: self-improvement comes from immersing oneself in the experience and engaging with the lives and stories of those whom one would not have come in contact with otherwise.
When I went to Tennessee during my freshman year, intentionality was a major theme. Every night, we would gather for reflection, challenging ourselves to understand the root of our service. We were not there to fix people for which we fixed houses. We were there to engage deeply with the people we worked with on the construction sites and the townspeople. We were there to challenge the preconceived notions we possessed. We were there to enter into the lives and stories of strangers with backgrounds different from our own. Our reflections were the driving engines that kept us focused throughout the week, and the forces that kept our trip from turning into another example of voluntourism.
After our long trip back and final reflection on campus, my group members and I slipped back into our old lives. The Appa meetings stopped. I incessantly talked about how Appa changed me until my friends were finally sickened by the inside jokes they didn’t understand. Even though I discussed it constantly, I could never exactly pinpoint the reason why my trip had such a profound affect on me. During the final weeks of the semester, I found myself mumbling polite “How are you doing’s?” to my group members as their names began to slowly fade, along with the memories and emotions of the trip itself.
What Appa is less successful at accomplishing is effectively unpacking the trip. When students return to campus, the memories they made and the lessons they learned while serving stuck with them, but for only a bit, and eventually they are stashed away like hiking boots and sleeping bags underneath their beds, until they are needed for a quick anecdote. Some groups are luckier than others, and the members stay in touch for longer than usual, making cameos at a leader’s Mod party or getting meals together every so often. Even for the groups that don’t stay in touch, the jokes and the crazy stories are still there underneath the silence.
Inevitably, time dulls that intensity of experiences. I remember the broiling heat in Tennessee and the arduous processes of stuccoing and erecting staircases, yet the conversations I had with the townspeople and the people who oversaw the construction are blurrier. Granted, constructing a staircase and smearing stucco onto a foundation are relatively easy tasks, but changing a mindset is not. This mindset is one that lacks the ability of application. It is easy to go to a town ravaged by poverty and exercise the mission of humility and service that is central to Appa. But retaining those lessons and instilling them into our lives at Boston College is a much harder, but necessary feat.
The silly pictures of one’s group at a worksite and the numerous inside jokes stick with us. Yet this is not the true story and mission of Appa. Appa should be about what happens after, inspiring the individual to take their lessons beyond the scope of a five-day trip. An Appa volunteer cannot depend on their trip leaders or group members to continually reinforce the lessons they learned on the trip. Rather, they must be the reason why the memory of a service trip still persists in their life and actions long after the return to campus.
In a way, I guess it’s good that I’m slightly bothered by the fact that this mindset of humility and intentionality only lasts for a brief five days. Thus, I urge everyone who has been on an Appa trip or is going for the first time this Spring Break to not return self-satisfied. Be bothered. Be frustrated by the fact that you are not reflecting on your day-to-day actions with the same intensity with which you are challenged during the trip reflections. Hold onto this feeling and let it be the driving force that urges you to seek more meaningful ways to interact and help others in the BC community.
As I am about to leave for North Carolina this break, I will pack, along with my hiking boots, the frustration that I have felt in the months following my return from Tennessee. Hopefully, my experience in Tennessee will shape the way North Carolina will persist in my life after the trip.
Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor