Service Learning Abroad: How Helping Others Helped Me

Mar 13, 2017 1:30:00 PM / by Julie Ritz

A CAPA Study Abroad Alumna Interview: Sara Noreña

CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself.
SARA NOREÑA: My name is Sara Noreña. I was born in Medellín, Colombia and moved to Orlando, Florida when I was 6-years-old. My home university is Rollins College and I am an English and political science double major. I studied abroad in London during the Fall 2016. I am interested in learning about global issues and their roots. My hobbies include reading and spending time with my family and friends.

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CW: Why did you choose the CAPA program and why London specifically?
SN: I chose the CAPA program because it offered the possibility of both taking classes and interning, which I saw as an important and unique opportunity. I chose to go to London because the multiplicity of cultures and customs in the city had always appealed to me and I felt this was a great place to further studies of inequality and diversity.

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My flatmates and I in Brighton Beach

CW: Talk about academics abroad: Which classes did you take in London? Which was your favorite and why? How were you able to connect your experience of the city itself and your academics?
SN: During my time in London, I took three classes: "European Government and Politics", "Contemporary Issues Through Service-Learning: The Social Dynamics of London", and "London Across Literature and Film". Although I enjoyed all classes, my "Contemporary Issues" class was my favorite because it allowed me to further my learning about the social dynamics of a big city and the issues that surround such an environment while discussing my service learning experience. I was able to connect my experience of the city to my academics because all of my classes discussed one if not various aspects of London’s past and present so the material learned in the classroom was able to guide my experience outside of it and vice versa. Both my academic experience and my “outside” experience were very connected because all of my classes took me on various field studies so it was easy to see the classroom material come to life.

CAPAStudyAbroad_London_Fall2016_From Sara Norena 3.jpgWhen I was visited by my boyfriend in London 

CW: While abroad, you participated in the service-learning program. Where was your placement and why did you decide to participate?
SN: My service learning placement was in St. Hilda’s East Community Centre. I decided to participate in this opportunity because upon placement, I was told I’d be working with a senior-citizen community facing poverty and isolation, which I thought was the perfect job for me. I have always been interested in these issues and have always been fond of working with an older community because I believe they have loads to teach and tell so I was a great match for this placement.

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My street on Earl's Court

CW: Walk us through a typical day at your service-learning placement. What were some of your responsibilities? 
SN: During a typical day at St. Hilda’s, I’d work from 10am to 5pm in the Older People’s Project. I would arrive at the center at around 10am and greet the older people. I’d then help make morning tea for everyone before sitting down to talk to the older people for some time. I’d talk to them about everything; topics would range from their daily life to their past and what it was like to grow up in the area. Since most of the beneficiaries lived in total isolation and the only social contact they had was at the center, talking to them was one of the best things I could do for them. They were always eager to tell me stories and I could tell they were appreciative of my listening.

Around noon, I would help the other employees set up for lunchtime. We would distribute the meals and then clean up once everyone was finished. After lunch, I would deliver another round of tea and then proceed to either lead or participate in group activities such as quizzes, arts and crafts sessions, bingo, knitting, and more. Around 3pm, I would help get the older people into their transportation methods so they’d go back home. Once they left, I would help clean up the room and then I’d go to the office and help with the planning of future activities.

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Me at the Bowie memorial in Brixton

CW: Give an example of a contribution you made to your service-learning site that you were proud of and how it made an impact.
SN: One of my biggest contributions to the service-learning site was a relationship I developed with one of the beneficiaries. Lillian, an 88-year old woman who regularly attends the center, was often quiet and isolated, even within the group. She was excluded by her peers at times and she spent much time on her own. I developed a close relationship with her by engaging in daily conversations. After some time, we became close friends and this made a positive impact on her life because it made her feel loved, important, and considered. She showed progress in the sense that she became more engaged in group activities and felt much happier overall.

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CW: Tell us about your service learning interview and how you prepared. Do you have any advice for incoming students?
SN: In order to prepare for my service-learning interview, I followed the guidelines given to students by CAPA during our internship orientation sessions. They gave us a series of potential questions, which I answered and then studied. My advice for incoming students is to be calm and to not stress too much about the interview. Have a few smart and thought-out answers ready, show up on time, be friendly and polite, and remain confident. The rest will take care of itself.

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CW: What transferable skills or other benefits did you take away from your service learning experience? How will this help you in your future career?
SN: My service-learning experience helped me gain a number of skills that will help me throughout the rest of my life. During my time at St. Hilda's, I learned valuable communication skills. Since I had to communicate with people from different ranks (supervisors, volunteers, beneficiaries, etc.), I learned ways of communicating that worked best for each person. This allowed me to get my messages across in more effective ways. I also learned how to develop close bonds with people while still remaining professional and getting my work done. I polished basic skills such as punctuality, learning, and time-management. In addition, I learned how to be more versatile because I was always assigned different kinds of tasks. All of the skills I learned at St. Hilda's are transferable and will help me in future careers because they are skills essential to have in any workplace and they facilitate teamwork and reaching goals.

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Irene, one of the women I worked with 

CW: Where were the places you carved out as "Your London" - the places you found outside of the tourist sites, the places that were most meaningful for you? What was special about them?
SN: St. Hilda’s was one of the most meaningful places for me because I developed a very close relationship with the center’s beneficiaries. They cared a lot about me and I cared a lot about them so I would always look forward to going there. In this place, I gained immense personal growth and created long-lasting memories.

Another place that was meaningful to me was my Earl’s Court apartment because during my time in London, my roommates became my sisters. We never argued and we shared endless amounts of great times together. From homemade brunch to Thanksgiving dinners, this place made being away from home much easier. Our apartment nice and cozy and our neighborhood was bustling and beautiful. This little corner of London became my home and I wouldn’t have wanted to live anywhere else.

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My friends and I at Stonehenge

CW: What changes have you seen in yourself since you began your study abroad program? What has your experience taught you about yourself, the world around you and some of the larger global issues we face today.
SN: Studying abroad has brought about many changes in me. I am now more aware of the world and everything that surrounds me. Going abroad has helped me to think bigger, to think beyond Orlando. I have learned to stop focusing on what other people say and do and to start focusing on my own actions and what impact they have. During my time in London, I traveled and got to see places I had never imagined I’d see before. This broadened my knowledge and also my interests. I am now more interested in seeing the world and learning more about it than I had ever been. This experience made me more mature and it taught me to ask questions, to realize that there are global issues in every corner of the world, and that it is my generation’s job to become informed and to make a change.

Thanks, Sara!

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Topics: London, England, Interviews, Service Learning