Students Learn Life Lessons in New Orleans
Providence, R.I. — PC students soaked in the culture and history of New Orleans, and reflected on its challenges, over winter break during the NOLA Immersion trip.
The 14 participants -- five seniors, seven juniors, and two sophomores – served at four different nonprofit organizations. The experience allowed them to learn the history of the Mississippi Delta region, to meet its residents, and to find out how they were affected by Hurricane Katrina and other factors, all while helping others.
“It’s an immersion into New Orleans, and that includes culture, food, music, and social realities,” said Richard Lumley, a campus minister in the Office of the Chaplain/Campus Ministry who led the trip.
Preparations for the trip started long before the holidays. Students applied in the Spring 2011 semester, Lumley said.
They started meeting weekly in the fall semester, first to plan the meal auction fundraiser. That event, in which students bid on meals with College faculty and staff, raised $3,500. A grant from the Angell Foundation also provided funds further offset costs for airfare, housing, rental vehicles, and many meals, so each student only had to contribute $100 for the trip, Lumley said. The group also made financial donations to some of the volunteer organizations they served, he said.
Student coordinators take on a leadership role by planning logistics, including selecting the type of service work the teams will perform.
For the first three days, students rotated among three sites: Orleans Public Defenders, where they entered case information into an online database from paper files; the Harry Tompson Center, where they worked with homeless people; and Green Light New Orleans, where they replaced incandescent light bulbs in homes with more efficient compact fluorescent versions.
On the final two days, the students, working with the Beacon of Hope Resource Center, prepped a house for painting by scraping and caulking.
Serving basic needs
With the public defenders, only some of the group had a chance to watch court activity, but they gained a sense of how overwhelmed the criminal justice system is there, Lumley said.
Marc Capuano ’12 (East Greenwich, R.I.) said that the data entry eased the burden of the attorneys, who are inundated with cases.
“A lot of us went there expecting to see a lot more concrete results,” said “We kind of realized everything we did helped in some way. You’re not going to move mountains every day, but just being able to do something was a positive step forward.”
At the Harry Tompson Center, they checked clients into showers and into the phone room. “Our work at the Harry Tompson Center pushed us beyond our comfort zone, but it also fostered a vivid awareness of the everyday struggles people have when they don’t have a place to call home,” said Lumley.
The Green Light work brought the immersion students in direct contact with New Orleans residents. One team was invited back to a house it had visited, where the woman made them a traditional New Orleans dinner.
Spirituality remained an anchor throughout the trip, said Lumley. Students went on a retreat during the fall semester to prepare. Each night, they ended with reflection on their day’s experiences and group prayer at the parish house where they were staying.
They also started their trip at a Gospel Mass at St. Joan of Arc Parish. Lumley said the students loved the service, which was nearly two hours long and featured a live band.
Insight on future careers
Students also had an opportunity to find out more about careers in service. They had dinner with members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps as well as a staffer at the Social Research Institute and her daughter, a Harvard sophomore, who described their experiences living through Hurricane Katrina.
Genevieve Ilg ’14 (Bloomfield, N.J.) said the experience made her aware of the severe need for assistance, not just in New Orleans.
“I didn’t like walking away after four hours,” Ilg said, referring to her team’s allotted time at some of the nonprofits.
It convinced her that she wanted to pursue a career in clinical social work rather than law.
“I love being in the field, working with people,” Ilg said.
In addition, the group also met with PC alumni. Leonard Alsfeld ’74 hosted the students for dinner at his house one night and also treated them to dinner and a New Orleans Hornets basketball game.
In addition, they found time for some classic New Orleans experiences, such as drinking coffee at Café du Monde and listening to live jazz at Preservation Hall. The students went to the Louisiana State Museum to see the exhibit Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond, which helped them understand the timeline leading up to the storm and why the levees failed, Lumley said.
Members of the NOLA Immersion group will present a slide show of images and read poetry from their trip at the Mardi Gras Party in the Mural Lounge in the Slavin Center at 7:00 p.m. on February 21.
-- Liz F. Kay