Penn College students reflect on service-learning Alaska trip

Williamsport, Pa. — A group of Penn College students explored Alaska and expanded their cultural understandings in a service-learning trip over the summer.

In partnership with YWCA Alaska, staff and students in Penn College's human services & restorative justice campaign hosted a conference of human services professionals at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The focus on the conference was preventing and dealing with cases of domestic violence from a professional standpoint.

“The biggest impact (for me) of the trip to Alaska was the exposure to another state and its unique culture,” said Colin G. Browne Jr., of Williamsport, who plans to graduate this month. “One of the biggest experiences I am continuing to use is understanding different people, being nonjudgmental, and being empathetic toward others. The academic piece of this class looked at the prevalence of domestic violence, which is a serious problem, one that I was not familiar with. After learning from others’ experiences, I continue to use their stories to be supportive and empathetic to things I don’t understand.”

The Service Learning in Human Services & Restorative Justice course focused on Alaska for a variety of reasons, explained Rob Cooley, associate professor of anthropology and environmental science. Alaska is a great distance from Pennsylvania, is considered a "bucket list" travel destination, and perhaps most importantly, has tremendous cultural differences from Pennsylvania.

“I picked Alaska because it’s stunningly beautiful, and a lot of our students have not had the opportunity to travel to a place like that. But it also has a really unique history. It has a very significant native population to this day that’s relevant and central to the state’s cultural identity. Central PA doesn’t have that,” Cooley explained.

Though Penn College's human services & restorative justice students are considered well-prepared after graduating, their experience is usually focused on Pennsylvanian demographics and culture. Cooley wished to broaden students' cultural awareness and experience working with diverse populations.

“Whenever you travel, things are different, even if you’re in a different city in the same country – the food is different, the language is different, the architecture, the geography, the landscape, the history – and that shapes how people do things. It shapes how people interact with each other; it shapes opportunities, as well as challenges,” Cooley said.

With the destination chosen, Cooley contacted YWCA Alaska and asked how his crew of a dozen students could help.

“I am always interested in creating space for young people to lead, and the YWCA Alaska always has more work than people,” said Theresa Lyons, chief executive officer of YWCA Alaska, “so it was an opportunity to do some good work in our community and support young leaders. Win-win!”

After some brainstorming, Lyons and Cooley agreed to have the students create a one-day conference focused on the topic of domestic violence.

Alaska has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the U.S., and according to the latest report by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, Alaskans are affected by domestic violence “at alarmingly high rates.”

During Spring 2022, the Penn College students performed extensive research into the complex issue of domestic violence as it relates to Alaska, including geographic, economic, historical, and cultural impacts. They also focused on coordinating logistics for the conference, to be held in June, after the spring semester ended.

“The students from Pennsylvania College of Technology developed and coordinated a summit on a topic that is critically important to Alaska,” Lyons shared. “The students were impressive. They were able to connect people from around the state of Alaska who are engaged in work related to domestic violence. They were able to coordinate expert panelists. This was done while they were in Pennsylvania. It was indeed remarkable. However, what was most impressive was the amount of knowledge the students mastered on the subject and their passion for the work. It was clear that they will make great social workers!”

The students took a passive role in the conference. Instead of trying to give the professionals advice and ideas, the students brought the pros together to share their stories about dealing with domestic violence.

“Part of cultural competence is not telling a client what they need, it’s having the humility to ask, ‘Here are the tools that I have, which one might work for you and why?’ ... and learning to listen,” Cooley explained. “We simply provided an opportunity for human services professionals from around Alaska to take some time to gather and discuss their experiences with the issues and what they thought were strengths, weaknesses and opportunities within the Alaska framework to move forward and effect change, to empower youth, to create new ideas and new approaches to addressing domestic violence in Alaska.”

Many of the professionals participating hadn't seen each other since 2019 or earlier or had never met in person, so the opportunity for a physical gathering was an exciting prospect. About 40 professionals attended.

“Something that impacted me was: We had people come from all over Alaska to participate in the conference. Two of the speakers traveled on a hopper (Alaska bush) plane to come and speak at the conference. These people cared about the topic of discussion to take time from their day and come speak at a conference that a group of students from Pennsylvania put together,” said Kalyn A. Moscariello, a May 2022 graduate from New Columbia. “The trip gave me an outlook on how different communities come together to help each other.”

Moscariello, a caseworker at Geisinger, says she continues to benefit from the communication skills developed in the service-learning course.

“We had to use a lot of communication skills in the preparation of this trip, specifically when we were planning the conference,” she said. “I use a lot of communication in the work that I do today.”

Ally M. George, a May 2022 graduate from Williamsport who is working as a mobility specialist, said: “I am still using a lot of the team-building and leadership skills I learned while there. While I had these skills before, I feel like this trip and experience really took it to the next level for me. I now have intertwined empathy into my leadership and team building more so than before.”

Kennedie L. Bahr, of Hillsgrove, who has petitioned to graduate this month, added: “Personally, the experience I had on the trip was life changing. The aspects of experiencing another culture through their lifestyle has given me a light to expand my knowledge. I would like to travel more and catch up with staff from Alaska YWCA to see how their agency is running and what they have added to it.”

In addition to the conference, the Penn College students experienced a range of outdoor and cultural adventures on their 10-day trip, but the service-learning aspect layered the excursion with more meaning.

“We had a client. We had expectations. We had something to deliver,” Cooley relayed.

“We had people depending on us, so it wasn’t like we were just going there to be entertained. Travel can be for entertainment purposes, and we certainly had opportunities for fun during our visit, but we also had a serious job to do. It was: ‘Let’s deal with this really difficult topic where people’s lives are at stake.’ The students did an excellent and professional job, and I couldn’t be more proud of their work. I’m already planning another travel project for Spring 2024 and looking forward to the adventure.”

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