University of Washington Tacoma students Che Arlag Hok and Margie Potoa’e have only known each other for a little over a year. The pair met on the job at the University Y Student Center. “This is my best friend,” said Hok. “We have the same goals, the same mindset, and the same personality.”
Hok and Potoa’e are both juniors getting social welfare degrees in UW Tacoma's Social Work & Criminal Justice program. A shared love of family and a commitment to serving others drew them to their majors. “I want to keep people as close to their families as possible,” said Potoa’e.
Considering their relationship and similar worldviews it wasn’t too surprising when Hok enlisted Potoa’e’s help organizing a spring breakaway trip through the Center for Service and Leadership (CSL). The CSL’s Alternative Breakaway program offers students, staff, and faculty an opportunity to spend breaks helping others.
Hok and Potoa’e discussed different ideas before deciding to take part in Habitat for Humanity’s Collegiate Challenge. Every year college students from around the country participate in this program. “My family doesn’t own a home so if I could provide someone else with a home that would be satisfying,” said Hok.
One stipulation of the Collegiate Challenge is that volunteers must be part of a group. Hok and Potoa’e—both members of UW Tacoma’s Asian Pacific Islander Student Union—enlisted the club’s support to pull together a team. "We thought, if we already have a group of people with common interests it would be easier to get them to serve together,” said Potoa’e.
Hok and Potoa’e ultimately chose to volunteer out of state and were placed in Sacramento, California by Habitat. “We thought it would be easier to broaden our perspective if we served outside of Washington,” said Hok.
Seven other students - Allen Lee, Zvon Casanova, Michelle Voluntarioso, Emmily Molio'o, Joseph Roberts, Elizabeth and DeeDee Daniel - signed up for the 700 mile trip to Sacramento. The group raised money to cover expenses by holding fundraisers. The distance presented an interesting dilemma. Until this point no alternative breakaway group had gone out of state without a faculty member.
A group of twenty-somethings stuffed inside two vans for hours on end is potentially disastrous. Hok and Potoa’e received training from the CSL on a range of issues including how to handle problems so far from home. In an attempt to curb future conflicts, the team established ground rules concerning behavior and the proper way to handle disagreements.
During their week in Sacramento, the group worked on three different sites. The tasks varied from landscaping to preparing a new lot for construction. Hok, Potoa’e and the rest were out of bed by 5:30 a.m. and worked from 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. “We Washingtonians aren’t really used to the heat and we were outside a lot,” said Potoa'e. “The physical labor was hard but doing it in the sun was draining.”
At the end of the day the group got together for reflection. This time allowed each individual an opportunity to express whatever was on their minds. “It got very emotional,” said Potoa’e. “Until we took the time to actually think about what we were doing we didn’t recognize how much we related to it and how much of an impact the community had on us.”
One of the homes the students worked on was for a man named Arturo. The group got to meet him near the end of the trip. Arturo’s wife is disabled. The couple has two children. “He was extremely thankful which was rewarding in-and-of itself,” said Potoa’e.
The experience strengthened the bond between Hok, Potoa’e and the other volunteers. The formation of new friendships is something the CSL wants to cultivate with these trips. “For our students the inequalities in our society are our shared responsibilities, and acting on these, they discover a deeper connection with each other and with the world around them,” said CSL Civic Engagement Specialist Paul Prociv.
Hok and Potoa’e plan to do another breakaway trip next year. They’re hoping to take what they’ve learned and apply it in the Tacoma area.
Below: A report from Sacramento television station KCRA about APISU's Alternative Breakaway trip.
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org