In the last issue of The Villanovan, Christopher Travers criticized Villanova Service Break Experience as glorified vacations. While he offers valid criticism and supports an honorable ideal, I feel his argument ultimately rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the University’s Service Break Program: that the value of a Service Break Experience should be measured by its concrete results.
Instead, I argue that the value of such an experience should be derived from the effect it has on its participants—ideally, by instilling a hunger for justice.
No group of college students has ever been able to completely change the world over the course of a week. During such a week, however, students can come to achieve a greater understanding of the world that will inform their actions in the future. As such, there are benefits to break trips that extend beyond the week of the trip itself—so why judge the trip solely on the results of that week?
In one telling anecdote, Travers recounts how a friend at the University of Georgia joined a service break trip to Philadelphia the week before Villanova sent a break trip to Athens, Ga.
If break trips were only as valuable as their immediate results, I would sympathize with Travers’s frustration with what he calls a “blatant, upsetting contradiction.” But insofar as break trips try to create “global citizens,” as the Campus Ministry website states, this travel makes perfect sense.
I would argue that a fundamental prerequisite for a sustained commitment to service, as Villanova hopes to inspire, is empathy. Empathy is bred from understanding, which itself is borne of knowledge. Knowledge, of course, stems from experience—which the University’s Service Break Program seeks to provide.
That is not to say, of course, that there is no need for service close to Philadelphia. There is immense need for such service, to which the existence of RUIBAL, Community Outreach of Villanova, and Service Learning Communities can attest.
But when given a large chunk of time free from distraction, I think it makes the most sense to expand one’s horizons by seeking opportunities for service outside the Philadelphia area. For example, there is certainly a difference in the urban poverty faced by Philadelphians and the rural poverty faced by inhabitants of the Appalachia region.
I agree with Travers that one week is not enough time to completely understand a particular area, its culture or its inhabitants. I do, however, feel it is enough to build a human connection and achieve a greater understanding of the issues facing a certain population. Traveling to an area and experiencing the conditions firsthand is perhaps among the best ways to achieve this awareness.
Furthermore, the Service Break Experience is called an experience for a reason: the impact of the trip on its participants is not limited to the week of service. There are mandatory meetings both before and after the trips with an emphasis on reflection and dialogue. On the trip itself, participants have nightly discussions about their service as well as keep journals that encourage introspection.
In this way, I think Travers is missing out: he himself states that he has “not applied for nor attended a break trip.” On my break trip, we discussed the same issues that Travers brings up in his article, reading such texts as Ivan Illich’s “To Hell with Good Intentions” and Jo Ann Van Engen’s “The Cost of Short Term Missions.”
Thoughtful reflection and purposeful action distinguish these break experiences from the mere vacations Travers may consider them to be.
Additionally, from the very beginning of the process, Campus Ministry makes the reality of these break experiences known. In the “Challenge to Poverty” lecture required for all students going on break trips, sociology chair Robert DeFina explicitly warns participants they will not be able to change the world. Instead, he explains that these experiences will hopefully influence their outlooks and set them on paths to affect greater change in the future.
I do not think our Service Break Program is perfect. I do think a transition to sustained, local service could be better encouraged and I think some students treat break trips like vacations.
If you’re trying to achieve the most immediate good for a community, attending a service break trip there is definitely not the best way. The best solution is usually a lot less glamorous: send cash.
I think Travers and I would agree that a Service Break Experience treated like a vacation is little better than an actual one. While hundreds of students go on break trips and return with renewed attitudes toward service, many others fail to transform their experiences into meaningful commitments on campus.
I understand that we’re all busy and involved, but when we choose not to further pursue service and social justice, we must ask ourselves what the purpose of our break trips truly was.
Regardless, due to their emphases on reflection and solidarity, I feel Villanova Service Break Experiences are both unique and valuable. While Villanova students may not be able to save the world during the week away, they can have transformative experiences that will help them ignite even greater change later in their lives.