Immersion programs give students an opportunity to have a life-changing experience.
When Gina Labato ‘14 arrived at Rollins in 2010, she considered herself mildly interested in service work but a first-year immersion trip to the Florida Everglades flung open her eyes and there was no turning back. Two years later, she’s co-leading that Everglades trip, an experience she sees as critical to embracing life at Rollins.
“The thing about immersion trips is that they aren’t just service experiences but they are personal growth experiences,” said Labato, who serves alongside Lucas Hernandez ‘13 as student coordinator of the Office of Community Engagement’s (OCE) Immersion Program: Citizens Take Action.
Each semester, more than 100 students participate in immersion programs coordinated through OCE. Anchored in important social and environmental issues, the trips are designed to submerge participants in experiences with the potential to completely transform one’s worldview. But they are as much about connecting students to an issue as they are about connecting students to each other.
“When I joined the Everglades trip in my first year, I was still struggling to find my place at Rollins, and this trip turned that around for me,” Labato said. “Now as a co-leader, I can see how these experiences really help some students step out of their shell; you see a lot of deep friendships form. These trips have it all: learning, service, but also camaraderie.”
Don’t get Labato wrong; the trips are a lot of work too. Students on the Everglades trip participated in exotic plant removal in the everglades and got lots of hands-on experience in understanding how humans are impacting that ecosystem. “We had reflection every night connecting it all to our life at Rollins, our part in the world, why we felt a need to partner with places like the everglades,” Labato said.
Labato and Hernandez oversaw several other fall immersions, including a Habitat for Humanity trip to St. Petersburg, Florida in September, a Labor Day weekend trip co-led by Hernandez to Deerfield Beach focused on the accessibility of nutrition and healthy eating in underserved communities, and a fall break trip to Immokalee, Florida where students learned about the evolution of agriculture in the area and the life of Immokalee’s immigrant and migrant farm workers.
In November, one group of students will travel to Gainesville to learn about the rights of the area’s homeless population, and another will head to Blue Springs State Park.
To say that immersions are life changing would be an understatement for Hernandez, who has participated in nearly a dozen such trips. “All immersion trips complement both the academic and social aspects of a Rollins education,” Hernandez said. “What they do best, however, is give students a new energy and sense of purpose which forever changes for the better their time at Rollins and beyond.”