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The Power of Dialogue: Alternative Spring Break 2014

This post was written by Stefan Rajiyah, a member of Georgetown's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service Class of 2014, who has been involved with the Alternative Spring Break program for four years, three times as a leader on the Spring Break in Appalachia trips and as the current chair of the 2014 ASBoard.

Nearing the end of four Alternative Spring Break (ASB) experiences, I face a daunting question: now what? Every year, I have come back to ASB and the Spring Break in Appalachia (SBIA) program hoping not only to learn more about Appalachia but also to share and increase awareness about what I have experienced with my Georgetown peers. However, my four years at Georgetown are almost up, and unfortunately I will not be going back to Appalachia after I graduate. So now what? How do I take my ASB experiences and apply them to my future post-grad life working with Teach for America in Newark, New Jersey?
While I haven’t formulated a definitive answer to this question, the closest I’ve come is thinking about the importance of dialogue. It is through dialogue on ASB with my fellow ASBoard members, my participants, and the stakeholders in Appalachia that I have learned how to engage with people, ask difficult questions, and understand how I can commit myself to a community. While this conception of dialogue has been reinforced on all four of my ASBs, the one conversation that really solidified this teaching for me occurred this past ASB in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when I met a woman named Julie.

The day I met Julie she told me that day was her first one being homeless, and I had absolutely no idea how to react. She discussed her worries and fears and how she decided to leave her son with her ex-husband so her child would never have to experience homelessness. All I could do was listen and ask questions to better understand her situation, and by the end of the conversation she thanked me for hearing her story. In all honesty, that was one of the most challenging conversations I have ever had because I did not know how to relate to her story. Reflecting on this experience, though, Julie taught me the importance of first listening to people’s stories to learn more about a community and the people who make up that community. It was through engaging Julie in dialogue and listening to her story that I learned about her life and was only then introduced to the human side of homelessness in Chattanooga. Julie’s willingness to share forced me out of my comfort zone and taught me that dialogue is the best way to understand the individuals of a community.

It is this notion of dialogue that I think will be my most important ASB lesson when I move to Newark. In the same way I spoke with Julie, I will first need to take the time to talk with my students to understand their lives and their interests. Through dialogue, I hope to commit myself to my students and eventually to the Newark community. But to learn about the community, I need to learn about its members, and my students will be my priority. In some situations, I may need to ask difficult questions that might make me feel uncomfortable, but it is through asking those tough questions and engaging with my students that I will be better able to commit myself both to my students and the Newark community.

I like to think of ASB as a concrete expression of Georgetown’s Jesuit values, and for me dialogue most represents the value of “men and women for others.” So while I do not know if I will return to Appalachia or Chattanooga in the future, I do know I will take this emphasis on dialogue—and by extension a commitment to “men and women for others”—after I graduate and move beyond Georgetown.

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