Alternative Spring Break 2012 - Atlanta
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How ASB Changed My Perspective, and My Life
By Jordan Duckens
Howard University News Service
WASHINGTON (March 19) – We sat anxiously in Cramton Auditorium, just minutes from boarding the buses for our respective cities.  Howard University’s First Lady, Paula Whetsel-Ribeau, Ph.D., who also serves as director of Alternative Spring Break (ASB), took some time to give all the participants some parting words.
Duckens works with one of her Hope-Hill Elementary pupils
Duckens works with one of her Hope-Hill Elementary pupils to improve his reading skills.  One of the students made Duckens understand the importance of ASB.

She asked us to be careful, be respectful, pay attention to our site coordinators and to represent Howard well.  Then she reminded us of the ASB mission:  service to others.  For some of us, she said, that mission may have become real the moment we applied to go to one of five U.S. cities or Haiti. For some of us, it may have become real when we got accepted. For others, it may have become real at one of the three meetings participants attended prior to leaving for ASB. And finally, she said, it wouldn’t become real for some of us until we got to our destination.

The magnitude of what I would be doing was not real until I saw the face of the first child I would be mentoring that week. I had received a list with the names of my mentees, but it was just names.  They became real when I finally matched my first face with a name.

He stood in front of me, and he was no longer just a student at Hope-Hill Elementary School in northeast Atlanta, just a stone’s throw away from the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.

He was real, and his name was Wilbur Clark. He was nine, kind of skinny and he came up just above my waist.

When I met him I smiled, but he looked at me blankly.  A million thoughts ran through my mind.

“What if he doesn’t like me?”

“What if I can’t help him?”

“What am I doing?”

“He would be looking to me for answers.  What if I don’t have them?”

It may sound cheesy, but what I learned that week is that these students at the elementary school where I would be working for a week weren’t looking for perfection. They just appreciate the effort. They were glad somebody cared.

Children pick up on everything and they can sense if you are truly concerned or if you only see them as a burden or obligation. So, regardless of whether he didn’t like me, or if I couldn’t help him, or if I didn’t have all the answers, the important thing is that I wanted to. I wanted to help all the children; therefore, I became what each of them needed me to be.  And for each one, that was something different.

Some needed me to be stern in order to reach them, so I became stern. Some needed me to be gentle to reach them, so I became gentle. Some frustrated me to no end, and others made my job easy—but by Friday, I had to hold back tears as I gave them each long good-bye hugs and watched them file out of the gym behind their teacher.

I missed out on ASB my freshman and sophomore year, because I was waiting for my friends to apply to go with me. This year is my junior year and I was running out of time.

So without consulting my friends or asking them to join me, I applied. And I am thankful I did.

ASB has been one of my most fulfilling college experiences. Every time one of my students showed me they understood a concept that they initially struggled with, I was overjoyed.  My smile couldn’t get any bigger.

The transformations they made were amazing. The first day, at least half of them obviously didn’t want to be there.

“Can I use the bathroom?,” someone would ask—seemingly every five minutes.

“Are we done yet?,” another would ask while fellow students squirmed and made faces at their classmates.

But by Wednesday, they were asking if they could stay in their session with me longer. On Thursday and Friday, Wilbur came up to me at the beginning of lunch and asked if we could start his tutoring session early. And he had not even eaten yet.

The daily grind of college had made me self-absorbed. I’m constantly focused on myself, obsessing about how I am going to get the best grades, the best internship and the best job after I graduate next May. I feel like I’m always taking from others—read “parents”—without offering anything in return.

This year, I realized I had not used my influence as a Howard student in a positive way. A lot of people, including myself, like to flaunt the Howard name, but what are we really doing with it? Instead of using it as a way to separate myself from others, I used it in Atlanta as a way to build a connection with seven inspirational children who have left an everlasting mark on my heart.

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