Marketing & Communications

Bronx trip shows value of service

A group of BGSU students spent fall break exploring an aspect of New York City that most travelers ignore - the grassroots efforts to serve residents of the Bronx, the neighborhood most notorious for crime and poverty in our nation's largest city.

About 40 BGSU students piled into vans and camped on the basement floor of a church. They spent five days learning from the volunteers who are working to make an impact in the borough and some of residents who are continuing to struggle despite such assistance. Students engaged with groups offering service to ex-felons, at-risk children, homeless gay teenagers, and those involved in such risky behavior as drug use.

The stories they heard often lacked a happy ending.

Chris Gerhardstein of Findlay was shocked to find that the long walk to the closet park in the Bronx took about 30 minutes, and required children to pass several factories emitting noxious odors. Local volunteers told the BGSU students that the neighborhood is estimated to have the worst asthma rates in the nation, and there is no remedy to the air pollution because the offending factories provide important job opportunities in the borough.

"There are some problems that you can't get rid of. They weren't trying to solve the problem, they were trying to live with the problem," said Gerhardstein, who has an individualized major in linguistics and education. "A lot was disheartening, but it filled your heart with hope because in the face of terrible things, these people had hope."

Rebecca Schroeder, a graphic design major from Ottawa, Ohio, was impressed by the level of artistic talent demonstrated by the children she met in the after-school program for at-risk youth. The walls were lined with "really professional" photography taken by some of the 10-year-old participants, she observed. She made a connection with a six-year-old girl whose parents emigrated from Mexico and was fascinated by the idea that Schroeder's great-grandparents emigrated from Germany.

Though it wasn't Schroeder's first trip to New York City, it was her first experience in the Bronx.

"I felt very sheltered, but now I understand the world from a whole different perspective," Schroeder said. "You really get to understand a whole new world outside of Bowling Green."

And that's the idea behind the trip, which co-sponsored by the Arts Village, which is a learning community in Chapman residence hall, and the Common Good, an non-profit program and off-campus community center operated by the United Christian Fellowship. This was the 10th trip to the Bronx in which the Arts Village has been a co-sponsor.

"Students are humbled by the stories of people who have made the best of awful circumstances growing up. And that was our intention . . . for students to see what a privilege it is to go to college here," said the Rev. Bill Thompson, director of the Common Good and BGSU instructor.

Gordon Rickets, director of the Arts Village, finds the experience often motivates students to get involved in service off-campus. In the past, Bronx trip alumni launched an after-school program and a community garden. This year, a group of returning students will be working with Thompson to create a meditation program at a local jail.

"It really is transforming. I've always been of the belief that you really can't know who you are as a person until you move away from what is familiar and comfortable to you," Rickets said. "A lot are motivated to realize they have it a lot better than others."

Thompson has led more than 900 students on similar trips, and has long observed the benefits of experiential learning.

"It's the best way to learn critical thinking," Thompson said. "There are a lot of things that you're taught about these places like the South Bronx. You get there, and you realize, no, it's not like that. It's not like I've been taught. And so then you start thinking, what else are they lying about?"

The trip is inexpensive, at a cost of about $300 for participants, but the benefits are immeasurable, said Dr. Chris Frey, assistant professor and MACIE program coordinator in the School of Educational Foundations, Leadership and Policy.

"I tell my students that you don't find yourself, you make yourself," Frey said. "You're putting yourself in a situation where you're going to be able to learn more about yourself, about your country, your culture. What those outcomes are, we can't predict because it's special to every person.