Lending a hand: Alternative reading week

When it comes to reading week, students are often faced with an anticipated selection of ways to spend their few days of freedom.

Some take the opportunity to relax by escaping to the sunny beaches of a tropical resort abroad.

Meanwhile others embrace the careless chaos of a nine-day weekend and a few even accomplish some actual reading.

Then there are those, like the students of Laurier’s alternative reading week program, who do something exceptional that will have a significant and indefinite impact on their lives and the lives of others.

The program is jointly established by the student leadership centre (SLC) and the diversity and equity office.

The program began in 2006 as a set of domestic excursions that students took part in to help out in their own and other fairly nearby communities.

“There’s so much information present but it’s not really put into practise all the time,” remarked Adam Lawrence, manager of the diversity and equity office, “like issues of leadership, social justice, diversity, community service learning.”

“We really wanted to get people out of the classroom, off of Laurier campus and doing something in the community,” he said.

But still this wasn’t enough to really make the difference that was desired and so in 2008 the program went international and the true alternative reading week experience was achieved.

“We call it alternative because it’s alternative to the preconceived notion of reading week, which has its place,” said Drew Piticco, manager of the student leadership centre and associate director of student partnerships.

“But for those students who want to do service work, explore social justice issues, understand another culture or community and really immerse themselves… we want to offer that on a year to year basis.”

Over the past few years, students have traveled to such destinations as Central Mexico, Louisiana, Costa Rica and this year the program will be taking its usual 18-20 participants to Guatemala.

Each year the group works with a different organization to ensure that there is efficient aid being offered.

“[We] look for a sustainable project so we’re going into a community where a project is already in place,” explained Lawrence.

“We’re not just going in to do a band aid solution with a community but really going to help with something that is going to be continuous so that when we leave there’s another group coming in to keep doing what we’re doing.”

The program is not just a weeklong commitment. Applications begin in September and students, if selected, are expected to meet occasionally and learn about the program and their destination throughout the school year.
Upon their return, the trip’s impact stays with a participant indefinitely.

The week causes you to “rediscover how to build relationships,” Piticco emphasized.

These days we are all so “tuned in” that going through such an experience without technology, engaged in constant face-to-face interaction is really unveiling — a notion that both Piticco and Lawrence highlighted when speaking to The Cord.

“You’re going to be a different person when you come back after only one week,” said Piticco, who although he is a staff member on the alternative reading week, explained that the program has an impact on him as well.

“I don’t feel like a staff member [on the trip] because I’m going through the same experience as they’re going through,” he went on to say.

Such experiences include the emotion upon visiting Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish shortly after it was hit by Hurricane Katrina.

“Because we were Canadians and Canadians were the first ones in the community to help… every time we’d walk into a restaurant or when we went and got ice cream there was this appreciation, people even clapped one time,” Lawrence reflected. “It was like this warm reception. That was one of the most impactful trips for me.”

This sort of reflection is a key component of what the alternative reading week experience is all about and it comes at a good time.

“From starting in September to December and then January on you have your academics, you have your social life, you have different responsibilities and this trip is really to come and break away from that and to look inward towards yourself and really ask a lot of questions about who you are… to learn more about yourself,” Lawrence confided.

Piticco adds that it “pushes people almost to their breaking point, whether that’s physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually. And we think that’s a good thing because once you break through that… there is growth there, you’re definitely changed as a result.”

Lawrence and Piticco hope that in the future this momentous opportunity can be open to even more applicants.

“Resources dictate and our time dictates that we can only really plan and run one of these a year; our idea is to grow to that western model of having seven or eight opportunities.”

The alternative reading week program may be young but it has tremendous potential.

They hope that it will soon take on the Laurier way and fall in the hands of a few young leaders, becoming a “student run process that is just housed under our areas,” said Piticco.

This year’s group will be offering more information on the program and their experience in the concourse sometime between the Monday and Thursday following reading week.