Standing atop a levee that failed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Tanya Muldoon, ’20, imagined the horror of water flooding countless homes and businesses.
“It was emotional just walking through the neighborhoods,” said Tanya, who visited New Orleans on a winter Alternative Break Trip with BSU’s Community Service Center. “It really opened my eyes. … Primarily white neighborhoods are already rebuilt. You go to primarily black neighborhoods and you still have houses that are abandoned.”
Tanya, 38, canvassed for affordable housing and environmental improvements, and gardened while serving with The Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, a New Orleans organization that promotes social, economic, environmental and racial justice.
She is among a growing number of post-traditional learners participating in BSU’s Alternative Break Trip (ABT) Program, where students take part in meaningful, direct service and explore social issues through a weeklong community engagement experience. Five post-traditional learners traveled in the past two academic years. They, like their younger peers, aimed to learn more about how to work for justice and plan to take action upon returning.
“What I find with post-traditional learners is they know how to intentionally connect their professional goals with the ABT program,” said Jennifer Thibodeau, the Community Service Center’s director. “They bring a variety of life experiences to the teams and the justice issues they’re exploring during these trips, which deepens the learning for all participants.”
Older students don’t become de facto parents, although Tanya sometimes assumed that role as she bonded with younger peers.
“The whole stigma around that generation right now is that they don’t care about stuff, and that’s totally wrong,” said Tanya, a single parent from Taunton majoring in social work and minoring in studio art. “Every person I went with on that trip was very compassionate.”
Younger students often view their older peers in a new light after spending a week living together. “They see themselves engaging with someone they didn’t necessarily think they would relate to and being more comfortable participating in the learning process,” Ms. Thibodeau said.
The age barrier disappeared for Stephanie Garcia, ’20, as she served with Tanya. Stephanie met Tanya’s 12-year-old son, JT Muldoon-Bagian, at pre- and post-travel service events and cheered when he FaceTimed his mom during the trip to say he earned a good grade.
“It shows how inclusive the university is and how they really are there for their students no matter what age they are,” Stephanie, 22, said of having students like Tanya at BSU. “The goal is to get an education and degree no matter how it comes.”
Tanya went to college after high school but wasn’t ready. She decided to try again, initially at Bristol Community College (BCC) and now at BSU.
Marissa Morganelli, ’19, also wasn’t prepared when she spent a year at Framingham State after high school. She left, eventually enrolling at BCC and coming to BSU.
Marissa, 25, of Stoughton, traveled to South Dakota in 2018 to work with children at Sioux YMCA and learn about injustices Native Americans face, such as social isolation and concentrated poverty. During the 2019 spring break, she helped lead a trip to Washington, D.C. Working with the Steinbruck Center at Luther Place, which provides programs that address homelessness and poverty in the nation’s capital, students learned about the very different face of urban poverty by serving meals to people experiencing homelessness and assisting at a shelter.
Marissa, who helped plan the ABT post-trip reflection dinner, once couldn’t have imagined herself as a leader. “Ten years ago in high school, I was the person who, if we had a presentation, would say ‘I’m sick.’ I’d leave my group holding the bag,” she said. “That was a huge area of personal growth for me.”
Regardless of age, trip participants agree the journeys inspire them to change their own communities.
“Once you are aware of things, it’s very hard to ignore them,” said Marissa, who is majoring in communication sciences and disorders, and psychology. “You can’t go into this experience and come out with the same mindset.”
Tanya now discusses racial inequality with her son. She also encourages older students to apply for service trips. “It broadens your perspective on things,” she said. “Age is not a concern.”