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Spring Break in New Orleans

Spring break is a time when many students travel to tropical islands for a week-long adventure, while several others venture back home for a relaxing time with family and friends. In the past, I’ve had both types of experiences, so for my final spring break, I decided to try something a little different. I had heard about an interfaith service trip to New Orleans, and while I’m not actively involved with a religious group at Juniata, campus ministry welcomed me with open arms.

Although I had always heard about the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, I thought that after 11 years the city would be restored. Although most areas of New Orleans have recovered nicely, the Lower Ninth Ward has not fully recuperated.

While in New Orleans, I, along with 17 other Juniata students, worked with an organization called Capstone, which aims to provide the citizens of the Lower Ninth Ward with free community gardens. To help out, we weeded, planted, and watered the gardens; constructed and painted boxes for honey bees; cleaned and fed goats and chickens; and helped with other jobs as needed.

Juniata students weeding one of Capstone’s community gardens located in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Since this was also an interfaith trip, we explored and discussed different religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Unitarian Universalism. Additionally, we were able to learn about the culture of New Orleans by talking with local citizens, eating beignets at the famous Café du Monde, visiting a Mardi Gras museum, and touring the renowned Saint Louis Cemetery.

The future tomb of actor Nicholas Cage, located in the Saint Louis Cemetery.

Lithuanian-American writer Ruta Sepetys once said, “New Orleans is unlike any city in America. Its cultural diversity is woven into the food, the music, the architecture—even the local superstitions. It’s a sensory experience on all levels, and there’s a story lurking around every corner.” After experiencing New Orleans first-hand, I could not agree more.

Understanding a Multicultural Community

Despite the most noticeable demographics, Juniata College is pretty diverse. There are people from different ethnic backgrounds, countries and cultures, socioeconomic classes, religions, hometowns (cities versus small towns), and personalities.  This type of diversity presents a variety of issues because of what I have personally pinpointed as lack of exposure. Just as some people ask “stupid questions” about my hair or look at me weird for walking around most days in outfits that to some of my peers seem too dressy, I ask “stupid questions” about animals I had never seen or the deer hunting culture that is so prevalent in Huntingdon.

Juniata has an entire office, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Campus Ministry, that is housed in the Unity House, dedicated to helping with culture shock, understanding  our unique community, and is a great resource for support.

There are always discussion panels that various clubs and offices hold during the school year that is essentially an open forum to discuss specific topics of differences.  I love the fact that at Juniata, there is a yearning for growth and knowledge, and it is displayed by the good turnouts to such events.  One of my favorite series that Juniata has is the Beyond Tolerance series.  The Office of Diversity and Inclusion brings in guest speakers and performers to do workshops with students, staff, and faculty. This year, some of the programs include African American Historical Trauma, an alumni panel discussing various forms of diversity and how their time at Juniata has positively effected their current careers, women’s rights and advancements, and urban activism and its toxic effects.

By attending such events, you can be eligible to receive a P.E.A.C.E Certificate.  It is a nice acknowledgment of your desire to be a more well-rounded citizen and the certificate is even signed by the President of the school. I was so excited to receive my Bronze level last year, after attending six events and I hope to work my way up to Gold before I graduate.