Oct 192008
Authors: Jen Johnson

In his famous book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Brazilian educator and theorist Paulo Friere said, “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

For me, this quote is meaningful in two respects. First, it stresses the value of constant curiosity and dedication toward learning. Second, it alludes to the importance of reaching out and connecting to other people and the world around us. As an educator at CSU, both of these values are extremely close to my own heart.

If you asked a typical CSU student how Friere’s quote might relate to his or her life, a response would be simple to formulate: “Of course I am learning — I’m in college. And, with the Internet, Facebook, text messaging, instant messaging and my cell phone, I have the world at my fingertips!”

Despite this, sometimes I wonder about how we are doing as individuals, as a university, as a community and as a country with regard to being “human” as Friere describes it. I recently asked a group of CSU students what percent of their daily life they feel disengaged? Uninspired? Bored? The answers of these students surprised me: 55 percent, 65 percent and 75 percent respectively.

Are we really trying to achieve knowledge in a relentless and tireless way? Are our efforts to connect with others and the world around us contributing to a greater sense of meaning, purpose and community in our lives?

I will admit that I am probably somewhat old fashioned. I am one of a small handful of people I know who does not own a cell phone. I am an e-mail addict, but I feel more fulfilled when I talk with a friend face-to-face or receive a letter via snail-mail. And although I have two college degrees, most of the important learning I have done has been outside of the formal classroom.

It is not hard to conclude that ideas of life-long learning and community connection are important concepts. Information available to us today is increasing at an alarming rate, making life-long learning a necessity and not a choice. Additionally, community connections contribute significantly to our quality of life. Therapist Will Miller states that the number of “refrigerator rights relationships” – the number of people who can forage in our kitchens without permission – directly relates to a person’s happiness and well-being.

But how does one actually engage in activities that support learning and community? How does one choose educational and community connection opportunities that are really going to inspire passion, creativity, and action? How does one take the first step to getting out of our daily routine to see and do something different? After all, it is so much easier to stay in our comfort zones than to take a risk.

One CSU program that I have had the privilege of being involved with that I think addresses these questions is the Alternative Break program at CSU. Alternative Breaks are based on a relatively simple idea: Students give their time during their winter, spring, or summer break to volunteer in and learn about another community in the United States or world. Each of the trips is focused on a different issue area such as homelessness, AIDS/HIV, the environment or economic sustainability. Students travel with their peers and are immersed in a culture different than what they are used to at CSU.

One of the most exciting parts of being part of the Alternative Break program at CSU is that I have the opportunity to witness truly transformative changes in students: students changing their majors or joining the Peace Corps as a result of their involvement with Alternative Break. I see the passion and excitement in students’ eyes after living in a different place, experiencing a different culture and seeing the world through a new lens after just one short week.

My dream is that every student at CSU might have the opportunity to experience something so powerful and life changing while at college — the opportunity to truly invest 100 percent of themselves in an experience that contributes to their sense of learning and community.

Applications for Alternative Spring Break are currently available in the Office for Student Leadership, Involvement and Community Engagement. I hope that you will take this opportunity to actively engage in life-long learning, community building, and most importantly, celebrating your own and others’ humanness.

Jen Johnson is the assistant director of volunteer programs for the SLiCE office at CSU. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.

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