The program that has taken students all over Texas, to the Grand Canyon and this summer, to Costa Rica, gives students a chance to engage in active learning through service.
Much of a student's education is spent in a classroom, taking notes and listening to lectures. But taking advantage of active learning opportunities outside of the classroom can be just as crucial to academic development.
"How students go to college is just as important as where they go," said Patrick Hughes, associate vice provost in the Division of Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs at Texas Tech University. "Students who participate in active and engaged learning report greater success in learning, greater success after college and continued learning in their careers."
One of the ways many students participate in this type of learning is by studying abroad. But studying abroad is not always feasible for a student who already has a full schedule or lacks funds for an extended period outside of the country. That's where the Center for Active Learning and Undergraduate Engagement (CALUE) comes in.
"Co-curricular experiences like CALUE Service Breaks help students apply their learning to the real world," Hughes said. "The Service Breaks fill a niche because they are experiences away from campus and away from home. They're also service-oriented and not as long as a traditional study abroad program. The shorter time frame provides an in-depth, active learning experience."
CALUE, part of the Division of Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs within the Office of the Provost, offers weeklong service trips for students, faculty and staff during winter, spring and summer campus breaks. This summer (May 22-31), CALUE will lead its first international Service Break in Costa Rica, where a group of students and staff will work with United Planet. The focus will be on sea turtle conservation and protecting nests from human poachers and beach erosion.
By engaging in hands-on, experiential service, students understand the impact they can have on communities and develop a commitment to lifelong active citizenship. Students who participate in the program also are involved in Raiders for Service (RFS), a Texas Tech student organization that provides opportunities to serve in the Lubbock and Texas Tech community.
CALUE has led two service breaks so far this year. In January, students spent a week in Laredo building houses with Laredo Habitat for Humanity, whose mission is to eliminate substandard housing by building simple, decent and affordable houses for families in need in Laredo and Webb County.
During spring break, CALUE lent a hand to the staff at Grand Canyon National Park. The group of Texas Tech students and staff helped coordinate parking and assisted visitors finding their way around the park during one of the site's busiest weeks of the year.
"I think a great time was had by all on this service break," said Jacy Proctor, unit coordinator and adviser. "Not only were Texas Tech students able to experience one of the natural wonders of the world, many for the first time, but they were also able to serve in the park in ways that would not be possible except in a program like CALUE Service Breaks."
This was the second time Summer Beckworth, a biology major from Richland Hills, participated in a CALUE service trip.
"Last spring break, I went to Corpus Christi to work with the Texas Sealife Center and had an absolute blast. I had a lot of fun becoming friends with the people who accompanied me on the trip and helping out around the solely volunteer-run facility," Beckworth said. "At the end of the trip we were able to look around the center and really see the difference we made for the volunteers there, which was what made the trip so worthwhile."
As site leader for this year's trip, she helped plan meetings, fundraisers and the
logistics of the trip. She said once the group arrived at the park, their time was
much more structured than last year's trip.
"The Grand Canyon has a very extensive volunteer program, so they had education sessions set up for us every morning before work with Commercial Services," Beckworth said.
Sessions included representatives from the asset management department briefing the volunteers on upkeep of the buildings and history of the park, while others from the permits department discussed the requirements for everything from getting married in the park to rim-to-rim hikes. Volunteers also had a question-and-answer segment with the park's deputy superintendent, Brian Drapeaux, where they were able to discuss current topics affecting the park. Beckworth said the experience was much more than she expected.
"I had never been to the Grand Canyon. I've been to Palo Duro Canyon before, and I was sort of expecting scenery similar to that. But I was so wrong," she said. "Many people have the idea that the Grand Canyon is in the desert. Far from it. It's smack dab right in the middle of a coniferous forest. The Canyon itself was, for lack of a better word, much grander than Palo Duro or really anything you can imagine; it looked like a painting that went on for miles and miles and miles."
Lexi Carden, a junior journalism major from Glen Rose, said she's been drawn to national parks after spending much of her childhood visiting them with her family. She also was interested in volunteering with an organization that focuses on environmental conservation, something she said is important to her. Like Beckworth and several others on the trip, Carden had never visited the Grand Canyon.
"I actually planned on visiting last summer with my family, but our plans changed so I wasn't able to go until this trip," Carden said. "I am extremely glad this was my first time. It was the perfect weather, time of year and the perfect group of people to go with. Seeing the rim for the first time with nine others who also hadn't seen the rim before was a fantastic experience. It was amazing."
During their week at the Grand Canyon, CALUE members spent much of their time in six of the eight parking lots, finding spots for visitors.
"Because spring break is one of the busiest times of the year for the Grand Canyon, parking is very limited and the lots are full by 11 a.m.," Beckworth said. "If you don't get to the park early in the morning, you could be stuck scouring the parking lots for hours. That's where we came in."
The group worked in pairs to guide people to open spaces or direct them to other lots that still had room. Carden said the work made her feel like she was an important part of park functions, not just for visitors, but for the park staff.
"Every time we saw a worker and we were wearing our traffic vests, they would tell us thank you and that we were doing a great job in everything we did," Carden said. "The work was awesome and I felt proud to be able to have helped them."
The volunteers also answered visitor questions and helped guide them through the park.
"We gave out some valuable answers to questions guests had, anything from " Where's the visitor's center?' and " What hike should we go on?' to much more bizarre ones," Beckworth said. "I got to interact with tons of people from all over the world which in itself was a super cool experience."
Those interactions were her favorite part of the trip.
"Definitely the people. The people I traveled there with, the people who work for National Park Services who helped us throughout our trip and the visitors that were, for the most part, super-nice and diverse and seemed to always comment on my non-existent Texas accent."
Carden said it's hard for her to pick her favorite part of the trip, but bonding with the others involved was something she really loved. While she said she can find it difficult to make good friends on campus, the trip allowed her to create relationships with everyone involved.
"From working with them during the day, to hiking down into the canyon with them, to even playing silly card tricks at the end of the day as we would eat dinner together that we had prepared, we all got to bond and see each other in our truest state," she said. "I really enjoyed being around the park staff and rangers that worked with us. They were fantastic people and made this trip even better."
The volunteers also were able to visit hard-to-reach places in the park and a special VIP tour of the Kolb Studio, which contains an art gallery, bookstore and information center. The house was built on the South Rim of the canyon by brothers, pioneers and photographers, Emery and Ellsworth Kolb. At the end of the week, each volunteer was inducted as a junior ranger.
"The learning and educational aspect that the CALUE Service Breaks program and the Grand Canyon Volunteer program provided allowed the participants to delve deep into the importance of National Parks, conservation and the many logistics of accommodating guests at a National Park," Proctor said.
Beckworth said the only part of the trip she didn't enjoy was when she and Proctor missed out on the free day they had during the trip.
"On the first day of work, I didn't put sunscreen on the back of my legs and I burned them worse than I've ever burnt myself," she said. "Later that day, Jacy twisted her ankle climbing onto a rock by the rim. So we were stuck back on the free day we had Wednesday when everyone went hiking."
Still, Beckworth said the trip was worth it and not just as something to put on a resume. Engaging in an active learning experience is something she can use to continue making an impact in her life and the lives of others long after it's over.
"Volunteer work is one thing, but if you're able to come back and educate people about what you've done and how it has impacted people, it makes your time so much more worthwhile," Beckworth said. "If you have a chance to take a service trip, I guarantee you won't be disappointed. It's a truly unique experience in every aspect – making many new friends, helping out where it's needed – and there's always a story to come back and tell."
Carden said anyone thinking about participating in a CALUE Service Break should consider which trip best suits their interests and then jump in.
"Whether it's working in environmental conservation or helping rebuild houses, just go for it," Carden said. "You won't regret anything if you go in with no specific expectations and a big heart. Volunteering overall is fun and a great cause, and if you want to help make a difference in the world, even the smallest difference, like us working with parking lots at the Grand Canyon, is still a big deal on a grand scale."
They might get more than they expected, she said.
"I got to experience a new choice for my career path," Carden said. "I have adamantly wanted to work in broadcast and become a TV meteorologist due to my love of the outdoors and science, but this trip brought me back to my childhood, visiting national parks and dreaming of working in the outdoors."
The trip allowed Carden to see the park from the inside, not just as a visitor. She said she never would have gotten that experience otherwise. Now, she's looking at ways to work for the National Parks Service that would incorporate her journalism degree and her love of earth sciences.
"It reminded me what I truly love and what I really would like to do, and I got to feel like I was a part of the park," Carden said. "That was more exciting than any TV work I've ever done. This trip was literally life-changing for me, and I would love to be able to volunteer again in a trip like this one."