Students travel across country to earn credit and serve others
By TIM LOGAN
Early Sunday morning, while much of campus is sleeping, 164 Notre Dame and Saint Mary's students will stumble out of bed and make their way to the Stepan Center parking lot.
From there, they will head for the hills of Appalachia to undertake a week-long service learning project that has become something of a tradition.
Upon arriving at their destination — one of 15 sites in Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee — they will spend six days working and learning at regional service organizations that are helping to combat poverty in one of America's poorest regions.
Notre Dame students have been traveling to Appalachia during fall and spring break for nearly 20 years. It began in 1981 when then-Lewis Hall rector Moira Baker took 14 residents of her dorm to Kentucky to work with the Christian Appalachian Project.
Baker continued to lead larger trips to Appalachia each semester until 1986, when she left Notre Dame, and the Center for Social Concerns took over the program.
Since then it has grown even larger. In 1987, 47 students went, and it was made into a one-credit theology course, with orientation and follow-up seminars. Next week, 164 will venture to the region and more than 100 others are expected to go during spring break.
"The Appalachia Seminar has become a Notre Dame tradition," said Rachel Tomas-Morgan, who directs the program for the CSC. "It's a service-learning tradition."
The purpose of the Seminar, according to Tomas-Morgan, is two-fold. It aims to provide help to Christian social service agencies in Appalachia and also to educate participants about the problems facing the region.
This dual mission influences what service groups students spend their week with.
"We look for partners who are committed to the educational process," she said. "Sites that want to welcome students into the region, not just to fill a need … but who are committed to educating students about Appalachia."
Education also factors heavily into seminars before and after the trip. Experts on the regions speak and participants discuss required readings on the historical context of Appalachia's problems and the Church's responses. One required text is "This Land is Home to Me," a pastoral letter by the region's Catholic bishops.
"[The seminar's intent] really is mainly to orient them to the region," Tomas-Morgan said. "To look at Appalachia and its socio-economic problems historically, and sociologically, but also to look at the Church's response to the region."
Much of the curriculum is compiled by a student task force which oversees the program. Task force members also travel to potential sites and stay in touch with current ones year-round.
The group is made up of former participants and has great latitude on the program's operation.
"It's almost entirely student-run," said task force chair Rose Domingo. "They leave a lot of it up to us. We decide on participants; we have a lot of say on sites."
The sites selected represent a range of social service agencies, although they all encourage the incorporation of reflection into volunteer work, Domingo said. Some students are put to work building houses, others farming and still others at taking care of children.
"We try to give a varied approach to the problems Appalachia faces," Domingo said.
Whatever work they did have there, many participants look back at the seminar as an important part of their Notre Dame experience.
"It's incredible," said junior Dan Bennett, who went on two Appalachian Seminars. "It's a great week. It's awesome."
The feeling was passed onto others, reaching the point where program organizers say they do not need to advertise, and they often turn applicants away.
Some of these applicants, Tomas-Morgan said, are worried they will miss a chance to go on the trip, and miss out on a part of the experience. Seniors, she said, will write on their applications, "I've heard you shouldn't graduate from Notre Dame without going on the Appalachia Seminar."
"I think that kind of sums it up," she said. "I think it has worked itself into the fabric of Notre Dame and student involvement."
All News Stories for Friday, October 15, 1999