Students giving back rather than going buck

by Beacon Staff • February 20, 2008

Last fall, at the beginning of her junior year, the communication studies and writing, literature and publishing double major began to formulate a plan to enhance not only her own community service experience, but to get the whole school involved.,It is uncommon to find an Emerson student who does not want his or her name to be recognized, whether it is up on a marquee or on the cover of a book. Erika Rydberg, however, was happy enough to see it on the walls of Emerson College.

Last fall, at the beginning of her junior year, the communication studies and writing, literature and publishing double major began to formulate a plan to enhance not only her own community service experience, but to get the whole school involved.

Her idea was to get a group of Emerson students to give up their regularly planned spring break and head to New Orleans to participate in the program known as Alternative Spring Break. On the trip, the group would pair with Habitat for Humanity and help to rebuild some of the damage that still exists from Hurricane Katrina.

"I wanted to get students from all academic and social backgrounds involved in service," Rydberg said.

By the end of the year, she had won an award called the Visionary Award, given by Imagine Students Reaching Out, one of Emerson's primary service groups. Rydberg has been involved with it since her freshman year and her work earned her a place on a plaque below a number of students she said she looked up to.

After pulling together a successful trip last March, Rydberg is at it again, planning, two ASB trips for the week of vacation in 2008. With Rydberg as the head coordinator, Office of Service Learning Staff Assistant Heather Flynn returning as the advisor, and five other students taking on leadership roles, they began looking into new projects for this year's trip immediately after their return last spring.

According to Rydberg, the group ended up missing the deadline for the Habitat for Humanity program and instead got in touch with Erin Taylor ('05), an Emerson alumna who planned an ASB of her own during her time here and is now a recovery volunteer coordinator for AmeriCorps in Waveland, Miss. AmeriCorps is a national, nonprofit organization that, according to its Web site, offers more than 75,000 opportunities for adults to get involved in service throughout the country. Rydberg and her committee coordinated with Taylor in planning a trip to Waveland, similar to last year's trip, during which they will be rebuilding houses that were damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

"The reason I wanted to bring Emerson here is because I am so proud to have worked with Imagine, and the Office of Service Learning and Community Action, Jennifer Greer and Heather Flynn. The new Imagine impresses me so much!" Taylor said in an e-mail to The Beacon,

Another ASB trip to Washington, D.C. was added to this year's options when Rydberg's group got into contact with the Youth Service Opportunities Project. The nationally-recognized organization that, according to its Web site, provides volunteer opportunities for young people in the form of help to the homeless and hungry in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Even with two trips planned, the interest was so overwhelming that the program was unable to accept everyone who applied to the program this year.

"It is really sad because no one is unqualified to go on a service trip." Flynn said.

Despite that, the group is still taking more than twice as many students as last year-18 to Waveland, and 12 to D.C., according to Rydberg. Flynn will be going with the Waveland students, along with Office of Student Life Staff Assistant Christopher Serwacki. Coordinator of Off-Campus Student Services Elin Riggs and New Pathways Staff Assistant Trish Fontanilla will be accompanying the Washington D.C. students.

Due to the number of students who were interested in the trips, the coordinators are in the process of planning a branch of the program to stay in Boston and do volunteer work throughout the city, though nothing is finalized.

Katie Woods, a freshman who will be participating in the program for the first time this March, said she's expecting hard work but is looking forward to doing something tangible.

"So many people have forgotten that Katrina happened," the writing, literature and publishing major said.

Rydberg had initially heard about the ASB program from Taylor when she was a freshman. Taylor is a former Imagine member and fellow Visionary Award winner. Her program, which she planned before graduating, had never grown beyond her own experience. Rydberg, however, wanted to create something that would last.

"I really wanted ASB to live on past my graduation," she said.

She spoke with people from other universities that had been involved with the program in the past, and, through communications with Boston University, she discovered Habitat for Humanity's Collegiate Challenge.

According to Habitat's Web site, this is a year-round program that sponsors students of different age levels from all around the world to spend their break building houses in a place of need. She decided to participate in the program in a trip to New Orleans. She contacted the Office of Service Learning,which immediately got on board, providing them with Flynn and an advisor.

The group began advertising, and a total of 12 students were brought on board. They spent months fundraising, and finally Rydberg's vision was realized. The group traveled to New Orleans and stayed in an elementary school that had been rebuilt specifically to host the volunteers, of which there were over 300, according to Flynn. It was referred to as "Camp Hope," and the students slept in a room with other volunteers on military cots.

Every night, after a long day of work, the Emerson volunteers would particpate in what they called "Reflection," where they would discuss their days and the impact of Hurricane Katrina as they had now seen it firsthand. This was Flynn's favorite part about the trip.

"It put the work in a broader context and made it a life-changing experience, It became something more." she said.

Rydberg described a taxi ride she took with two other volunteers, during which the driver told them stories and showed them pictures from the days of the storm itself.

"It was so emotional to talk to him and get the face of an individual onto this giant occurrence." she said,

Upon their return, the students, according to Flynn, created a buzz about the trip. Heather Marie Vitale, a senior organizational and political communication major, who was one of the 12 students to go on last year's trip, and is returning this year, said that she has gone on fun trips during other spring breaks, but that this trip was much more fulfilling.

"I got to go somewhere I probably wouldn't go otherwise and give back," she said. "It's an amazing shared experience. Everyone is learning and growing from it."

Megan Carroll, a writing, literature and publishing major who will be traveling to Waveland this spring, heard about the program from Vitale upon her return.

"She talked about it for weeks," the sophomore said, driving her to the decision to join the program this year. She is expecting a lot of fun

, she said, but also a lot of hard work.

The most difficult part of the planning process, as Flynn, Vitale and Rydberg said, has been the fundraising. Because they want all students to have the opportunity without worrying about the financing, there is a lot of money that needs to be raised, since the cost is between $300 and $400 per person, according to Flynn.

This year, the group has hosted a number of fundraising events, such as gift wrapping at Borders, letter writing campaigns, a fundraiser through the California Pizza Kitchen, a variety show and silent auction and a video game tournament.

Not only have the events been helpful in their monetary support for the club, they have also generated more publicity for the program. Elizabeth Pashley, a freshman writing, literature and publishing major who attended the silent auction said that she hadn't known much about the program before the event, but would consider doing it next year.

"It's something that would actually make a difference," she said.

Vitale said that she hopes that the program will be recognized as a program by the SGA, so as to receive consistent funding in the future.

"The Emerson community has responded really well," said Vitale, who was in charge of fundraising.

Rydberg said she hopes the program will expand in the future, so they can take as many students as possible, and maybe even go across the globe. Though she will be graduating, she hopes people will take over the vacant leadership positions and keep the program going. She plans on pursuing the community service path after graduation.

"It was such an honor to be with those people on that plaque," she said. "To see that all the work I did was received well by the community was awesome."