Nobuko Goto will never forget the obliteration of towns and villages in northeastern Japan when the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 changed lives forever. Back then, as a section chief for the Housing Department for the national government of Japan, she scrambled to find emergency housing for survivors suddenly left homeless.
Now at UCLA as a graduate student in public policy, Goto, a Japanese national, is leaving campus over spring break to return to a nation in recovery — and bringing along 21 of her peers from the Luskin School of Public Affairs. Graduate students in public policy, urban planning and social welfare, they will spend their spring break doing volunteer work with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the Sendai area and talking with survivors as well as government officials working on recovery projects.
The Luskin students are part of a growing number of UCLA students who are more interested in using spring break to engage in service learning projects that broaden their perspectives than in heading to Palm Springs to party with friends.
Nobuko Goto and Lindsay Miracle, graduate students in public policy, are headed to the coastal areas of Japan hardest hit by the 2011 tsunami. They are part of a group of 22 Luskin School of Public Affairs students who are using their spring break to do volunteer work there and meet with public officials to learn about Japan's recovery and policy challenges.
The decision to spend her spring break learning about Japan’s reconstruction and the challenges the government and the people there face was "a no-brainer," said Lindsay Miracle, one of the public policy graduate students going to Japan with Goto. "I have two short years to learn and experience as much as I can before reentering the workforce, so I wouldn’t want to spend my time any other way. In fact, if I weren’t going to Japan, I’d look to see what volunteer opportunities were available at home."
Another group of UCLA students will spend next week taking part in Alternative Spring Break 2012, working at a community center in South Los Angeles; assisting the homeless at a shelter in Salinas, Calif., caring for animals and repairing fences at an animal shelter in Kanab, Utah; and volunteering in New Orleans through a Hurricane Katrina-related program set up by Tulane University. In all, the Undergraduate Students Association Council (USAC), working with the Center for Community Learning at UCLA, is sending 47 student volunteers, chosen from 72 applicants, to five locations across the country for "intensive emergence experiences" as volunteers working eight hours a day.
"You’d be surprised — most students don’t want to ‘do nothing’ over spring break," said Melinda Speckmann, the USAC co-director of programming who organized Alternative Spring Break 2012. She’s a third-year biophysics major who participated in the program last year and "fell in love" with it.
"UCLA students are insanely driven — you put an opportunity on the table for them, and most of them will take it. … A lot of students have this social awareness about them, knowing that it’s just as important to give back as it is to succeed in their own lives," Speckmann said.
During Alternative Spring Break, students will be both living and working among the people they will be serving. For example, students volunteering at the South L.A. community center will live with families in the neighborhood while students assigned to Dorothy’s Place in Salinas will reside in the homeless shelter.
Students are traveling north to Salinas during spring break to work and live at Dorothy's Place. It's one of five sites nationwide where students will be volunteering during Alternative Spring Break 2012.
"It’s not just clocking in a certain number of volunteer hours," Speckmann said. " It’s about walking away being less naïve and more educated about someone’s life and hardships. … If you are personally affected by someone and their situation, you have educated yourself and will now use your experiences to educate others."
When these student volunteers return, said Kathy O’Byrne, director of the Center for Community Learning, they can enroll in a new civic engagement course for Spring Quarter. "Students will have an opportunity to read, write and reflect on the meaning of this transformative experience," she said. Hopefully, they will return "with a sense of perspective, humility and their own ability to contribute and solve problems," and be able to contribute to a more diverse, globally aware campus community, she said.
Goto said she hopes the Japan trip will give her Luskin peers a greater understanding of her country, its people and its policies. "Japan should mean more than sushi and cars," she said. Her fellow graduate students "will be the leaders of the future. I want them to be a bridge between Japan and America."
Among the government officials they will meet will be UCLA alumnus Yoshimasa Nakajima, a government staffer who is assisting in the reconstruction of the airport in Sendai. During their stay, the students will be volunteering with NGOs to deliver aid to people still in need and sharing their college-going experiences with children living in temporary housing.
The Luskin trip received funding from Dr. Paul Terasaki, professor emeritus of surgery and a pioneer in organ transplant medicine, who has been a generous supporter of the College of Letters and Science and many other programs on campus. In 2006, he and his wife contributed $5 million to UCLA to promote better understanding between the United States and Japan at the renamed Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies at the UCLA International Institute.
UCLA students get dirty working at a garden at Mark Twain Middle School at a UCLA Volunteer Center "One Bus, One Cause" project.
Professor Hitoshi Abe, director of the center and chair of the UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design, grew up and worked in the Sendai area, where members of his family still live. The students’ visit, he said, will "show that there are many people who care about what is happening in the area. People there need continuous support to regain their lives."
For students who remain in L.A. during spring break, an opportunity to contribute to the community is available on March 31, when the UCLA Volunteer Center’s "One Bus, One Cause" project will send a busload of up to 50 students to Orville Wright Middle School to build a community garden as well as a circular seating area that will serve as an outdoor classroom. The project is part of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council’s Good Food Day of Service.
To learn more, visit the "One Bus, One Cause" website.