Students Make a Spring Break Impact through Service

One group of GW students learned about Native American rights through their Alternative Break service with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

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Tanmai Vemulapalli (L) and Annabelle Pham were service trip co-leaders for the Alternative Break journey to Tahlequah, Okla. (Photos courtesy Tanmai Vemulapalli and Annabelle Pham)
April 11, 2018

By Briahnna Brown

Annabelle Pham, an Alternative Break trip co-leader and a junior majoring in business administration, said she joined the program because she was motivated to do something meaningful with her time.

So she, along with co-leader Tanmai Vemulapalli, a senior majoring in international affairs and anthropology, went to Tahlequah, Okla., to engage in community service work with the Cherokee Nation’s Head Start program, a federal early childhood education program that promotes school readiness.

"I would've never imagined spending a spring break in my college career in Oklahoma, and now, looking back, I wish I could go back,” Ms. Pham said. “I wouldn't change this experience for the world."

Ms. Vemulapalli explained that their group did mostly indirect service with the Head Start program to help the school prepare for its national review by the federal government. The service group spent time raking leaves, cleaning classrooms and painting a mural. They even put together some educational materials for the children who will be learning about trees in their next unit.

Their trip was one of 11 service trips in the GW Alternative Breaks Program to U.S. and international locations, with each trip offering a service area such as urban sustainability, community development or education. Participants learn about the issue they are working with and participate in group cultural and bonding activities during the service trip.

It has long been important for Ms. Vemulapalli to go beyond “voluntourism” and make as much of an impact as possible in the week she serves, she said. Her group learned about issues facing the Cherokee Nation as well as the community’s varying views on issues the Native American community is facing, such as the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline and the protests surrounding it.

Through learning about perspectives on these issues firsthand, Ms. Vemulapalli said, she learned to ask how plans and policies affect native populations wherever she is, a skill that will allow her to continue to have impact beyond the week-long service trip.

"A lot of that comes out of coming back and using that information that you learned to continue advocating and educating other people," Ms. Vemulapalli said.

Ms. Pham explained that by hearing the community’s stories and learning about the issues they face, she can have some impact in sharing their stories. Since returning from her service trip, she said she talks about everything she learned from her trip to almost everyone she encounters.

“I'm proud to say that I can be an ally now because I know more," Ms. Pham said. "Now, in anything that I do, I have that perspective to be more conscious about different groups that I could be serving with in the future."

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