Beyond Bama: A service-learning alternative

By Joey Blackwell

When it comes to a break from school, most University of Alabama students dream of sunny white-sand beaches or possibly a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains.

Most, but not all.

Beyond Bama is a program at UA that organizes service-learning trips for students to different places in need of assistance on both a national and global scale. Instead of going to the beach or home to see their families during their breaks, students volunteer their time to make an impact in communities that require help.

Tori Gray serves as a learning partner for Beyond Bama, which is a position filled by a UA faculty or staff member that serves as a chaperone on the trips.

Student Group Photo
Beyond Bama students pose for a photo before getting to work on a trip in Costa Rica.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity that you don’t get in the classroom,” Gray said. “I’ve never met anyone that’s had a bad experience. I wish I had done it in college. It was life-changing for me.”

Gray said that students as well as mentors that go on service trips with Beyond Bama come back with a greater knowledge about the problems people face on a daily basis in the world.

“It opened up a lot of conversations about privilege and what you take for granted,” Gray said. “It’s not something that’s always easy to talk to students about. Sometimes it takes actually seeing things, seeing the way other people live or struggles that other people have gone through for them to really truly understand.”

Beyond Bama takes multiple trips a year, and has visited many locations both nationally and internationally, including Louisiana, Florida, Ohio, Alabama, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica.

The organizers at Beyond Bama focus on sustainability when developing a plan to help communities. The assistance provided by the student team needs to be something that can be utilized over a long period of time, giving the community long-term assistance and facilities.

One such example of sustainability was a library that UA, in partnership with other universities, built for a community in Nicaragua.

Separate teams from different schools each came one week at a time, with each team serving a different process in the building of the library. The first team laid the foundation, the second built the walls, the third team built the roof, and then Beyond Bama’s team came in and laid tile, painted the walls, installed windows, and built the bookshelves.

Teams that came after Beyond Bama installed computers and organized the books for the community to use, as well as providing translated instructions on how to use and operate the library.

“It was sustainable because it was built in conjunction with a local school that would be there, and in conjunction with a nunnery of nuns that would help run and facilitate the space,” said Courtney Chapman Thomas, director for UA’s Center for Service and Leadership. “It wasn’t just that this was our idea. They came to us, said ‘this is what we need,’ and as a collaborative we came together and now there’s a library in a community that there wasn’t.”

Student hoisting scaffolding
Students raise scaffolding outside of a house in Guin, AL.

While providing services and rebuilding infrastructure for communities is a valuable part of Beyond Bama, students also learn from their experiences with outside cultures.

Logan Fenhouse is a junior at UA, majoring in both Spanish and Biomedical Anthropology. Fenhouse has served as assistant team leader for Beyond Bama and is going to serve as team leader in the 2019-2020 academic year.

“It’s really service-learning, so while actually having your hands in that community and doing something about that issue that they’re facing, you really get to learn more about an issue that you really wouldn’t in any other context,” Fenhouse said.

Fenhouse has been on five alternative breaks with Beyond Bama, with her first being a trip to Baton Rouge that inspired her to continue down the path of service-learning.

“There we worked with helping out flood victims, and it really just changed how I thought about the world,” Fenhouse said. “There I saw a DVD that had the words ‘Liam’s first birthday’ on it, and it just hit me that this family had lost their entire home and their lives and their memories, and I just really wanted to get more involved with the organization.”

When it comes to figuring out something to do over break, Fenhouse highly recommends that students take a look at Beyond Bama.

“Beyond Bama has meant so much to me, and it has given me some of the best friends that I could have asked for here at Alabama,” Fenhouse said. “It’s really just a great experience overall, and I wish all students could do it.”

To learn more about Beyond Bama, visit the Center for Service and Leadership website.