Over spring break in 2018, a group of students from the U-M Muslim Students’ Association went on an Alternative Spring Break trip to Louisville, Kentucky. The topic for our service-learning based trip was Youth and Education. We explored that by partnering with an amazing organization called Junior Achievement, which is dedicated to giving young people the knowledge and skills they need to make smart academic and economic choices. As I reflect on this trip, I’d like to first thank the BLI, which has been dear to my heart since I started at U-M, for granting us with the Small Grant that helped with our trip expenses. We wouldn’t have had the rewarding and reflective experience that we did without their generous contribution.
Every weekday, we woke up bright and early (6 am!) and went to an elementary school in Louisville to teach a lesson about financial literacy to students ranging from kindergarten to 4th grade. Every day, we visited a different school and taught lessons ranging from explaining the difference between needs and wants, assembling “Sweet-o-Donuts” to illustrate the importance of means of production, and helping students brainstorm their own restaurants to understand how to start a business. And every night before, our group members worked to learn the lesson plans that JA provided to us. We expected challenges in our classrooms and handled them with a determination to succeed and provide a good lesson for our students. We always asked our JA supervisor and our classroom teachers when we needed any kind of assistance.
Aside from teaching children, we also explored the wonderful city of Louisville. We visited Muhammad Ali’s final resting place and were able to reflect on his life, legacy, and the role model he is for our own aspirations.We also toured the University of Louisville campus (Go Blue forever though), had ice cream with members of U of L’s Muslim Students’ Association, tried the legendary chess pie, and had dinner with the U-M Alumni Association of Louisville (again, Go Blue forever). And because we couldn’t get enough of the benefits of community service, our group also spent an evening volunteering at a mosque that served a large refugee population.
Through this trip, I gained 12 lifelong friends – my forever ASB family. The bonds that we made through our shared experiences volunteering are some I hope will last for a long time. Our trip was muddled with multiple, marvelous misadventures, including but not limited to: ice cream runs, basketball games, urgent care visits, getting lost in the woods, getting lost in the city, walking on the wrong bridge, broken pinkies, laughing about our embarrassing moments, creating every possible ASB-related pun in existence, driving in our favorite minivan—the list goes on. This trip would not have been what it was without every single one of our ASBunch.
Amidst all the fun, our group members also paused and reflected on our daily experiences every night, which truly helped us understand the magnitude of the work we were doing. Community service isn’t just work that positively impacts the community—it is work for a purpose higher than yourself that does not only enrich the community you’re assisting but also provides a teaching opportunity for yourself. Our own Islamic faith encapsulates this idea, and through reflection, I was fully able to grasp this. This opportunity also helped me truly grasp the impact of disparities due to social stratification and residential segregation on students’ educational attainment. I realized how so many factors affect a child’s education, such as health, income, teacher expectancy on a child’s ability to succeed, and more. Items as seemingly mundane as eyeglasses or hearing aids could make a significant impact on a child’s learning ability. A positive attitude and encouragement to a child learning a concept they’re unfamiliar with speaks volumes. One of the schools had a large amount of ESL students, where language barriers hindered their ability to interact with their fellow students—yet these are barriers that can be lifted with the right kind of policy and attention. In an area that is so nuanced but also so integral to our society, a policymaker has to be aware of all of these intersecting factors and invest more in improving our education on a nationwide scale.
We may have been teaching young children financial literary skills, but our students ended up teaching us so much about ourselves. The children we taught, regardless of their socioeconomic background or their identities, seemed to all possess an innocent, almost naïve desire to learn new information. Their pure eagerness to learn struck me, because it made me wonder how we lose that as adults. People have told me that I still possess that childlike yearn to learn, but even I feel cynical. It seems that we get so caught up in working towards an end goal—whether a better grade, job, income, education, or future—that we lose sight of the knowledge and memories we gain along the way. What changes throughout our lives that diminishes that spark?
This is a question I asked as I reflected on myself as a leader, but more importantly, as a member of my community. Ultimately, a trip that I once thought was just a more eventful way to spend a week than doing nothing at home ended up becoming such a life-changing and phenomenal avenue for personal growth. I recognized the value of prioritizing the goals that truly mattered to me, the importance of seizing every opportunity that came my way, and the ability to tangibly instill change with a smile on my face. As I returned to campus, that excitement, positive mindset, and eagerness to make a tangible difference never left. For the first time in a long time, I let all my stressors, academic deadlines, and extracurricular involvements go for a week, and by doing that, I was truly able to enjoy the work I did and absorb the lessons I learned from it.
That week was easily one of the most rewarding and beneficial weeks of my life, and my hope is that all students at the University of Michigan get the opportunity to go on at least one ASB trip during their time here.
By Zoha Qureshi