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Students laugh, learn and serve on New Mexico spring break trip

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – It’s hard to beat a spring break that includes sun, fun and social work.

A group of nine Bethel College students, along with two professors – Hamilton Williams, social work, and Ami Regier, literary studies – spent the college’s spring break week (March 17-24) in Arizona and New Mexico, much of it within the Navajo Nation.

Many of the students (though not all) are social work majors or seriously considering it. Before coming to Bethel last fall, Williams taught seven years in the social work department at Western New Mexico University, Silver City, and as a result has good contacts in social services in the state.

The first part of the trip, then, comprised a visit with administrators and other members of the Navajo Nation, who gave the group a thorough introduction to social services there at the tribal headquarters in Window Rock, Ariz.

They met with the Honorable Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation (and received the privilege of visiting the Navajo equivalent of the Oval Office), and spent the rest of the day learning about services for “special needs” groups such as school children, as well as the tribal justice system.

One of Williams’ former students is Sharon Begay-McCabe, a judge on the Zuni Reservation before she decided to get a master’s degree in social work, and now head of the Navajo Division of Social Services.

This part of the trip was important to several of the Bethel students. “I wanted to see social work from a different perspective,” says Joe Kondziola, sophomore from North Newton, “such as how they use restorative justice in the Navajo Nation.”

“It was fascinating talking to people within the court system, seeing how the traditional Navajo ways, including the language, are integrated and how that makes things work better,” adds Ben Kreider, freshman from North Newton.

“I was interested in learning about a different culture,” says Peter Wintermote, senior from Hillsboro, “and how the government worked on the Navajo Nation, especially in programs for children and elders.”

Several years ago, when Williams was still in New Mexico, Begay-McCabe “offered to have people come stay in a hogan [traditional Navajo dwelling] on her family’s land,” Williams says. “I was finally able to take her up on it.”

The hogan is at Wheatfields Lake near Canyon de Chelly in northeastern Arizona. The group stayed there two nights. Though there was snow on the ground and it got down to 19 degrees F. at night, that was no problem, the students report, because of the “central heating” – a woodstove in the middle of the hogan.

Nonetheless, they thoroughly enjoyed their hogan stay. At night, sleeping bags ranged in a circle around the woodstove, they had “girl talk” with everyone sharing personal stories and feelings about what they were experiencing.

This was one aspect of the trip that helped quickly cement a feeling of camaraderie, the students say. “This was a group of people I don’t hang out with usually,” says Jennifer Scott, sophomore from Newton. “We had a lot of fun and laughed a lot.”

“I enjoyed getting to know people,” adds Kaitlyn Preheim, junior from Peabody.

On the first night in the hogan, staff from the Chinle (Ariz.) NDSS office drove out to give the group a presentation on Navajo culture. They spent the next morning learning about services that Chinle NDSS provides, and the afternoon hiking into Canyon de Chelly, a Navajo sacred area that includes the remains of an ancient cliff dwelling, the White House Ruin.

The group cohesiveness showed up on the intensive service day at the Community Pantry in Gallup, N.M., in the middle of the week, where the group helped pack food boxes. “Everybody pulled together and got a lot done,” says Williams. “They worked together well. We got them at least two days ahead on meals.”

The food pantry, started by one man who at first worked out of a storage unit, is a place where some of Williams’ former students had done internships. “It’s a real model for food distribution in [small] communities,” Williams says.

The next day, the group visited Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, another Navajo sacred area that relatively few people see because of its remote location. They spent their last day before heading back to Kansas in Santa Fe.

“I had lived in New Mexico and knew the beauty and had had some experience with native people,” says Kreider, who spent nine months in voluntary service in Albuquerque between high school graduation and coming to Bethel. “But I hadn’t spent that much time on a reservation. I was grinning a little too widely for most of the trip. There was definitely some ecstatic joy on this trip.”

Some of that had to do with the variety of cuisines the students got to experience, starting with the Brazilian restaurant in Albuquerque and including many traditional Navajo and other indigenous foods such as blue cornmeal mush (a favorite of Kreider’s though not of many others), lamb stew, frybread and Navajo tacos.

“Wes Goodrich [junior from Independence] could eat enough for 10,” says Nikki Smith, sophomore from Elkhart, Ind. “The rest of us would have been finished for half an hour and he was still eating.”

The students expressed appreciation for their faculty sponsors. “Ami and Hamilton were very hospitable and gracious,” says Smith, and Scott adds, “They always made sure we were fed – Hamilton had the emergency chocolate stash – and they were very open about letting us do things.”

Williams says this was a great group to spend spring break with – young people who engaged others with interest and listened with respect.

“Part of service is to listen to people talk about their culture,” Williams says, “rather than being arrogant by coming in to ‘help.’”

In addition to the students mentioned, the group also included Jordan Penner, junior from Newton, and Shayne Runnion, junior from Phillipsburg.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2011-12 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2011-12. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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