Students travel, study on YMCA programs

by Peter Frost

Instead of just hearing lectures about social justice issues, students in the University YMCA’s immersion program are seeing and learning about these issues firsthand.
University students can pack their bags and take a one- to two-week trip to study urban sprawl in Portland, Ore., women’s rights in Western Europe and poverty in Nicaragua.
The YMCA sponsors about six such trips per year, one international, during the University’s vacations.
The trips focus on social problems that are especially prevalent in certain areas of the world and relate to problems in the Twin Cities.
Past trips have addressed topics such as HIV, homelessness, racism and police brutality as well as gender, religion and environmental issues.
The immersion program brings students to where these social issues and problems are happening.
“It was really an up-in-your-face experience to actually meet a person that you see on TV slaving in a factory from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. making hardly any money,” said Kim Walsh, a College of Liberal Arts senior.
Walsh, along with nine other volunteers, traveled to Nicaragua this summer to study poverty and land reform.
“It’s a very moving experience to be there hearing people’s struggles firsthand. You can see the direct impact of the exploitation of Third-World countries by big countries like the U.S.,” she said.
Walsh said she learned a lot on the trip and that it “was more of a development of my own feelings toward world issues than anything.”
The immersion program’s student coordinator, Anne Kokalis, a CLA senior, went to Philadelphia last winter break to study police brutality.
“It’s the most fabulous experience I’ve ever had,” she said. “The program puts a face on the issues, and, for me, it was a totally life-changing experience.”
The trips are flexible, Kokalis said. Along with a few other participants, Kokalis took a day trip into New York City.
Kera Peterson, a CLA senior, said she enjoyed meeting with a Philadelphia public defender with experience working on death row.
“Just talking with (the public defender) made the issue of police brutality seem much more real and important,” she said.
Peterson enjoyed the program so much that she is volunteering to lead a group trip during winter break.
She said the groups usually meet with several organizations per day that deal with the issue being studied and then participate in service projects or take time to explore the area.
These excursions are partially funded by grants and fund-raisers. Last year, the program received more than $4,000 from Coca-Cola.
This year, trips are scheduled to Sacramento and San Diego as well as a European trip to France, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland.
The Sacramento trip will study mandatory minimum-sentencing laws and related problems. The San Diego trip will investigate the standard of living of Californian migrant workers. The European trip will focus on human rights of refugee women.
The application deadline for these programs is Oct. 29.

Peter Frost covers business and welcomes comments at [email protected]