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Students continue to unpack benefits from service trip to Alaska

For some travel experiences, the excitement ends when the travelers return home, but for a Pennsylvania College of Technology group, the benefits from a service-learning trip to Alaska are still being unpacked.

The contingent from Penn College’s human services & restorative justice major partnered with YWCA Alaska to host “Through It All: We Rise Together,” a conference on the campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage that brought together human services professionals from across the state to explore new pathways related to domestic violence. Outcomes from the summer event endure in Alaska and in the skill sets of the young Pennsylvania community leaders.

“The biggest impact (for me) of the trip to Alaska was the exposure to another state and its unique culture,” said Colin G. Browne Jr., of Williamsport, who plans to graduate this month. “One of the biggest experiences I am continuing to use is understanding different people, being nonjudgmental and being empathetic toward others. The academic piece of this class looked at the prevalence of domestic violence, which is a serious problem, one that I was not familiar with. After learning from others’ experiences, I continue to use their stories to be supportive and empathetic to things I don’t understand.”

As part of a service-learning trip to Alaska, a group of Pennsylvania College of Technology human services & restorative justice students and their faculty chaperones visit Matanuska Glacier in Sutton, northeast of Anchorage.
As part of a service-learning trip to Alaska, a group of Pennsylvania College of Technology human services & restorative justice students and their faculty chaperones visit Matanuska Glacier in Sutton, northeast of Anchorage.

To enhance the students’ experiences in the three-credit course, Service Learning in Human Services & Restorative Justice, Rob Cooley, associate professor of anthropology/environmental science, chose to focus on Alaska for a variety of reasons, including its distance from Pennsylvania, its vast beauty and “bucket list” travel appeal, as well as its myriad cultural differences.

“I picked Alaska because it’s stunningly beautiful, and a lot of our students have not had the opportunity to travel to a place like that. But it also has a really unique history. It has a very significant native population to this day that’s relevant and central to the state’s cultural identity. Central PA doesn’t have that,” Cooley explained, noting that, while Penn College human services & restorative justice students graduate as some of the best-prepared professionals in their field, their experience is often focused in Pennsylvania, its demographics and culture. He wanted to broaden their cultural awareness and experience working with diverse populations by applying their skills somewhere entirely different.

“Whenever you travel, things are different, even if you’re in a different city in the same country – the food is different, the language is different, the architecture, the geography, the landscape, the history – and that shapes how people do things. It shapes how people interact with each other; it shapes opportunities, as well as challenges,” Cooley said.

With a close relationship to the local YWCA and familiarity with its mission, the Penn College professor reached out to YWCA Alaska, which serves the entire state, to see how his 12 human services & restorative justice students could be of help.

“I am always interested in creating space for young people to lead, and the YWCA Alaska always has more work than people,” said Theresa Lyons, chief executive officer of YWCA Alaska, “so it was an opportunity to do some good work in our community and support young leaders. Win-win!”

After some brainstorming, Lyons and Cooley agreed to have the students create a one-day conference focused on the topic of domestic violence.

Rob Cooley, associate professor of anthropology/environmental science, snaps a selfie with his traveling (and pedaling) companions along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.
Rob Cooley, associate professor of anthropology/environmental science, snaps a selfie with his traveling (and pedaling) companions along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.

Alaska has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the U.S., and according to the latest report by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, Alaskans are affected by domestic violence “at alarmingly high rates.”

During Spring 2022, the Penn College students performed extensive research into the complex issue of domestic violence as it relates to Alaska, including geographic, economic, historical and cultural impacts. They also focused on coordinating logistics for the conference, to be held in June, after the spring semester ended.

“The students from Pennsylvania College of Technology developed and coordinated a summit on a topic that is critically important to Alaska,” Lyons shared. “The students were impressive. They were able to connect people from around the state of Alaska who are engaged in work related to domestic violence. They were able to coordinate expert panelists. This was done while they were in Pennsylvania. It was indeed remarkable. However, what was most impressive was the amount of knowledge the students mastered on the subject and their passion for the work. It was clear that they will make great social workers!”

The intention of the students’ participation was not to provide ideas or advice but to facilitate the opportunity for Alaskan experts to come together to talk about their roles, experiences and needs in dealing with domestic violence.

“Part of cultural competence is not telling a client what they need, it’s having the humility to ask, ‘Here are the tools that I have, which one might work for you and why?’ … and learning to listen,” Cooley explained. “We simply provided an opportunity for human services professionals  from around Alaska to take some time to gather and discuss their experiences with the issues and what they thought were strengths, weaknesses and opportunities within the Alaska framework to move forward and effect change, to empower youth, to create new ideas and new approaches to addressing domestic violence in Alaska.”

Many of the participants hadn’t seen one other since before the pandemic, and some had never met in person, so the opportunity to gather was warmly embraced, with about 40 people attending in person and virtually. The exchange also created an infrastructure for the participants to continue their connection for lasting progress or partnerships that hadn’t yet been in place.

Colin G. Browne Jr. strikes a triumphant pose.
Colin G. Browne Jr. strikes a triumphant pose.

“Something that impacted me was: We had people come from all over Alaska to participate in the conference. Two of the speakers traveled on a hopper (Alaska bush) plane to come and speak at the conference. These people cared about the topic of discussion to take time from their day and come speak at a conference that a group of students from Pennsylvania put together,” said Kalyn A. Moscariello, a May 2022 graduate from New Columbia. “The trip gave me an outlook on how different communities come together to help each other.”

Moscariello, a caseworker at Geisinger, says she continues to benefit from the communication skills developed in the service-learning course.

“We had to use a lot of communication skills in the preparation of this trip, specifically when we were planning the conference,” she said. “I use a lot of communication in the work that I do today.”

Ally M. George, a May 2022 graduate from Williamsport who is working as a mobility specialist, said: “I am still using a lot of the team-building and leadership skills I learned while there. While I had these skills before, I feel like this trip and experience really took it to the next level for me. I now have intertwined empathy into my leadership and team building more so than before.”

Kennedie L. Bahr, of Hillsgrove, who has petitioned to graduate this month, added: “Personally, the experience I had on the trip was life changing. The aspects of experiencing another culture through their lifestyle has given me a light to expand my knowledge. I would like to travel more and catch up with staff from Alaska YWCA to see how their agency is running and what they have added to it.”

In addition to the conference, the Penn College students experienced a range of outdoor and cultural adventures on their 10-day trip, but the service-learning aspect certainly layered the excursion with more meaning.

“We had a client. We had expectations. We had something to deliver,” Cooley relayed. “We had people depending on us, so it wasn’t like we were just going there to be entertained. Travel can be for entertainment purposes, and we certainly had opportunities for fun during our visit, but we also had a serious job to do. It was: ‘Let’s deal with this really difficult topic where people’s lives are at stake.’ The students did an excellent and professional job, and I couldn’t be more proud of their work. I’m already planning another travel project for Spring 2024 and looking forward to the adventure.”

Penn College offers Associate of Applied Science and Bachelor of Science degrees in human services & restorative justice. To learn more, call the School of Business, Arts & Sciences at 570-327-4521.

For more about Penn College, a national leader in applied technology education, email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.

– Photos shared by students Ally M. George, Kalyn A. Moscariello and Nicole M. Smulligan;
and faculty chaperones Rob Cooley and David S. Richards


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