A new Intersession course gave fifteen students at Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) the opportunity to help an underserved population in a different country. For the course “The Olive Branch and the Sea,” students travelled to Greece for the sole purpose of service to the community.
The services they provided were accomplished in two waves. Students were separated into two groups. The first group worked with Caritas Hellas, an organization that supports refugees who are coming into Greece, while the other group worked in Archelon with injured sea turtles, rehabilitating and releasing them back into the sea. At the midpoint of their trip, the groups switched places.
Cathy Petchel, a W&J assistant professor of psychology, and the trip organizer, was grateful and excited that this opportunity was available for the students.
“This trip was one that challenged our preconceived notions of humanity and culture, and in the process one that changed us,” she said.
Shannon Adams ’17 also felt that this trip left her with a lasting impression.
“The most important thing that this trip has taught me would be my ability to rely on myself in difficult and new situations,” she said. “This was my first time studying abroad, and I didn’t know what to expect. I learned that I had to trust myself to adapt to my surroundings.”
Before travelling to Greece, the students collected supplies on campus to take with them to donate to the people there. They held a campus collection drive, obtaining clothing items for both adults and children to be distributed within Caritas Hellas.
Caritas Hellas provides food, clothing, tents, water, personal hygiene items, and psychosocial support to refugees coming to Greece from other parts of the world. The W&J students worked every day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., helping in the kitchen or the playroom with the children.
Spending time with refugees was an eye-opening experience, said Kelsey Brewbaker ’17.
“Some of the regular volunteers told stories of how some kids would come into the center with sandals on and no coat, in the dead of winter,” she said. “I think the most important thing that this trip taught me was to never take anything for granted and to lend a helping hand whenever you can. I’ve been very privileged all of my life to never have to worry about when my next meal will be, or if and when I will be forced out of my home.”
At Archelon, the students were tasked with moving the sea turtles, cleaning them and their tanks, refilling tanks, and feeding them. This experience was something that Brewbaker was also extremely impacted by.
“Many of the turtles were kept there due to horrendous head injuries that were inflicted by boats, as well as fishermen who sometimes hit them over the head and drop them back in the ocean when the turtles would get caught up in their nets. Some of them were so badly hurt that they had to be force-fed daily,” she said. “I couldn’t help but wonder if I was only prolonging their suffering and if they even knew I was only trying to help them.”
She realized, however, that the work they did with the turtles was incredibly rewarding, as they are incredibly resilient animals and she was able to see the improvement and healing of the turtles. It is something she hopes to go back and do again someday.
Everyone involved in this service trip was deeply affected by their experiences and what they saw, and it is one that they will never forget.
About Washington & Jefferson College
Washington & Jefferson College, located in Washington, Pa., is a selective liberal arts college founded in 1781. Committed to providing each of its students with the highest-quality undergraduate education available, W&J offers a traditional arts and sciences curriculum emphasizing interdisciplinary study and independent study work. For more information about W&J, visit www.washjeff.edu, or call 888-W-AND-JAY.
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