University of Rochester

Community Service in Africa: A Winter Recess to Assist, Explore Self

December 23, 2002

This year's winter recess at the University of Rochester will allow time for 11 people-from a freshman to the Catholic chaplain-to travel to Malawi, Africa, on a trip that's part community service and part spirituality and self-reflection.

"We hope to make this a new model for winter break," said the Rev. Brian Cool, the Catholic chaplain. "Alternative Spring Break is an idea that's catching on, but during a week in March you can't do community service and experience a different culture." With this trip, students and staff will do both.

The thought of spending two weeks in Gowa, a village in Malawi, evolved during conversations between Cool and Joseph Lanning, who lived there two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. He established a strong bond with the people as well as many excellent, in-country contacts. That kind of support will be beneficial to those making the trip.

Both Lanning and his wife, Alexis Spilman, graduated from the University in 2000 and are now graduate students; she is pursuing a doctorate in optics, he is earning a master's degree in history. They were married in Malawi last summer and are in the group departing Dec. 27.

About 30 students applied for the program, but there was room for just seven. Efforts were made to assemble a group that was diverse in background, religion, and academic interests. "We're going to be learning more than we're teaching," said Marie Lewis, director of community programs in the Dean of Students office, who is making the trip. "Each person will have an individual experience by living with families and by gaining exposure to the culture."

Famine and the increasing numbers of people with AIDS are major problems in Malawi, which is located in east-central Africa and borders Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique. During the visit, students and staff will pitch in on projects identified by the people in Gowa.

"Part of the experience will be to discuss and process what we are learning," said Cool. "How can you apply this to your major-and to your life?"

Like Alternative Spring Break, those traveling pay most of their expenses and hold fund-raising events. Campus sponsors for this trip include the Community Service Network, the Catholic Newman Community, and the Learning for a Diverse Community Project of the Hewlett Grant. Other supporters are St. Louis Catholic Church in Pittsford, St. John of Rochester Catholic Church in Fairport, and the World Education Fund for Women, a foundation started by Lanning to eliminate gender disparities in schools in the developing world.