The Global Village Experience

By Sarah Jenkins '06
University Writer/Editor

One alum.
One night in a slum.

And a whole lot of ideas about making the world a better place.

"The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that men are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts."

~ John Rawls,
A Theory of Justice

Tell that to the rooster crowing at 4:30 a.m., as I toss and turn in my sleeping bag on the dirt floor of this "urban slum." The distribution of resources that has put me on the slum floor doesn't feel so just or natural at this moment. I tuck myself in tighter against the early April wind as it breezes through our cabin's wide-open doorway. How did I get here?

Writer/Editor Sarah Jenkins volunteering as a freshman "Lunch Pal" at Boyd Elementary.

I was a freshman at Drury in spring 2003 when I first read the ideas of Friedman and Rawls in the "private interest and public welfare" section of my Alpha Seminar book. Professor John Taylor guided my class through the readings and discussions on what makes a good community, giving us cited threepage paper assignments in which to untangle our thoughts. We were learning how to be good college students, and at the same time, we were each beginning to figure out what "the good life" would mean for ourselves.

Any discussion about the value of liberal arts education will no doubt include the words "civic engagement," and so should a magazine devoted to the subject. Known by many other names community service, volunteer development, engaged learning, or simply "getting involved" — civic engagement, like liberal arts, can be hard to define.

After my four years as a student, followed by working at Drury in Student Life and my current role as a writer, I have a hunch that there's more to civic engagement than the occasional Saturday morning street cleanup, followed perhaps by a pizza party. Those activities aren't unremarkable in themselves, but they might not leave a lasting impression or provide the educational value of a semester-long three-hour course. But does civic engagement have the potential to be something much more meaningful?

Director of Leadership and Volunteer Development Andrew Wiemer thinks so. He lives and breathes civic engagement every day in his Findlay Student Center office. This newly settled space reflects Andrew's characteristic energy and activity. Shelves display rows of books about leadership and teamwork. Plastic bins hold rolls of masking tape, used in a recent team-building exercise for prospective students.

Andrew Wiemer

Andrew believes that leadership is more than a list of activities on a résumé and volunteer development is about more than picking up trash and planting trees.

It's about cultivating lifelong habits of engagement and empathy in students and showing them how to use their passions to impact the community. He came to Drury in 2006 as a regional director of admission before assuming his current role in 2008. This role includes organizing the annual Service Plunge during freshman orientation, advising Summit Park Leadership Community students on their yearlong projects, teaching Leadership Drury classes, and being the point person on campus for nonprofit organizations that are looking for volunteers and students who are looking for opportunities.

Andrew juggles all these hats with a blend of tenderness and tenacity that comes from truly believing in one's work. Not so long ago, he was starting his own nonprofit leadership program as a high school student in Nebraska and then developing training for residence life staff as a graduate student at the University of Central Arkansas.

"This generation has grown up volunteering," he says of today's students. "It's just something you do." The challenge for his office is to keep students engaged as they grow from freshmen to seniors. The resources necessary for Andrew's work can depend on his ability to communicate the value of experiences, which can't be shown on a spreadsheet. In 2009, the Drury community reported 12,000 community service hours, but Andrew hopes to find new ways to measure, report and celebrate the student success that civic engagement provides. "I know students are getting valuable experience," he says, "but how can we do that better?"

Back to that early morning in the urban slum. One April weekend in 2010, I joined a Drury-sponsored trip to Heifer International's Global Village to learn more about this experience. Sixty students chose to give up a weekend in exchange for knowledge — plus maybe extra credit toward a GP21 paper and an excuse to go camping.

Heifer International is a nonprofit organization working in more than 50 countries, dedicated to eliminating poverty and sustaining communities. You may recognize the Heifer name from their gift catalog, where anyone can buy and "give" livestock, a tree or seeds to a family across the world who will then use the resources for food and income. The Global Village is an experiential learning program at the Heifer Ranch outside Perryville, Arkansas, where participants live for a night in simulated poverty and learn hands-on lessons about hunger, resource disparity and the systems that keep those problems in place.

Andrew has taken groups of students on the Global Village trip several times but has never been assigned to "Guatemala" — the most posh of all the simulated locations with electricity, running water, and a western style toilet. On this trip, he and I were both assigned to the urban slum. The slum's unfinished tin-roofed structures simulate what life is like for more than 1 billion people, with the exception of the seatless sawdust-composting toilet that many in the world would see as a luxury.

The "urban slum" home-away-from-home at Heifer Ranch.

Photo gallery:
Civic Engagement at Drury

Students were assigned to a home for the night, anywhere from the slums to the Guatemalan palace, where each group spent the evening managing the limitations of their new environment. For instance, eight people had to care for a water balloon "baby" worn in a fabric sling. A language barrier was imposed on those in the "refugee camp," who were not allowed to speak. It didn't take much time in the Global Village for us to realize how much basic resources like light switches, cell phones and microwaves are vital to the comfort of American life.

Helping students see and experience the complexity of the world's problems is part of the value of civic engagement. In 2009, a $10,000 "Bringing Theory into Practice" grant through the Association of American Colleges and Universities helped Drury launch the Global Civic Engagement Project (GCEP), co-directed by Andrew Wiemer and Dr. Michael Hill, associate professor of interdisciplinary studies.

GCEP sponsored trips to Heifer Ranch as well as the first-year Community Brigades program, which paired Alpha Seminar classes with community organizations for an ongoing project. This interaction between community and classroom had never before happened on such a large scale. Projects included a neighborhood fair for Hispanic residents, a commemorative book for Ozark Greenways 20th year, and a high school anti-drinking campaign. While a few hours of volunteer work can help an organization, this kind of sustained support has a more lasting impact and gives students more long-term benefits in skills and experience. Professor Richard Schur's Alpha Brigade developed an anti-binge drinking campaign proposal for Community Partnership of the Ozarks. The students researched existing campaigns to find a message that might speak to local high school students. They presented their results to CPO and its advisory board, which includes the Greene County Sheriff and Prosecutor.

"Service learning projects like these are the new 'face' of liberal learning," Schur reflects. "Drury has been leading the way in developing study abroad trips, internships, studio projects and studentfaculty research projects. These 'new' pedagogies help faculty promote the fundamental aspects of a liberal education — curiosity, creativity, analytical thinking, ethics and critical thinking." A cocurricular effort like GCEP takes investment of time and resources, but there's an enduring payoff: the independent thinking and problem-solving skills that develop in successful students will later make them ethical, compassionate citizens.

Shannon Huett '06, MBA '08 was a member of the first Summit Park class her sophomore year. As part of this new leadership community, her eight-member "House of Joy" group lived in apartment-style campus housing and volunteered throughout the year at Joy Assisted Living. Later, while earning her MBA, Shannon was a graduate assistant for international programs. Working with these students, who were brave enough to leave home to live and study in another culture, helped her decide to apply for the Peace Corps. Shannon says both academic work and extracurricular activities at Drury helped her to become more comfortable within her community. Professors, classmates and mentors pushed her to take risks to help meet her community's needs.

She is currently stationed in Pavlodar, Kazakhstan, where she helps with business organization and youth development at a rehabilitation center for disabled children. "A lot of what we learned at Drury helped me to understand how cultural differences affect business," she says. "Every day while serving here in the Peace Corps, I see those differences played out in real life — it's not a simulation anymore!"

Beyond her official Peace Corps duties, Shannon serves as an ambassador for American culture and does all she can to immerse herself in Kazakh culture — including running a marathon and taking part in a traditional below-zero outdoor baptism during Epiphany. She will complete her two-year term at the end of 2011 and return home to Missouri, eager to see family and friends.

At the end of the Global Village experience, most of us were eager to return home after just one day of immersion in another culture. Reentry rituals included joyfully reuniting with cell phone service and indulging in a pizza buffet before the bus ride home.

Dirt and wind notwithstanding, my night in the slum was easy. When it was time to cook, the groups with the most resources almost immediately invited the rest of us to join for dinner. Students pooled resources and divided work, and while no one was stuffed, nobody went hungry. I fell asleep to the sound of students in the urban slum laughing and singing around a campfire they'd built by hand. We spent the next morning doing chores around the ranch and debriefing as a group with Heifer volunteers. The session ended with a question: How would you imagine the type of community you' d want to be born into, if you could choose?

Like liberal arts and civic engagement, this answer isn't easy to define, but somewhere between Friedman and Rawls, student-hood and adulthood, paradise and the slum, I'm beginning to find my answer.