USC Students Band Together
By Pamela J. Johnson
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul," Emily Dickinson wrote, "and sings the tunes without the words and never stops at all.”
At USC, a group of dedicated students has taken Dickinson’s lyrical verse to heart. Since December, they have unremittingly kept hope alive for victims of the devastating tsunami that hit Asia and Africa a day after Christmas.
This winter, after a year of planning and fund-raising, about a dozen students will travel to hard-hit Thailand to help rebuild an orphanage or school. Their journey will mark USC’s first Alternative Winter Break, said Melissa Gaeke, director of the USC Volunteer Center and doctoral candidate in public administration.
Every March since 1991, students have relinquished their weeklong vacation during the Alternative Spring Break program in order to volunteer in locations throughout the world. Now, the service-learning program has expanded to include winter.
The work began when USC College senior Agavni Gasparyan launched the fund-raising effort for those affected by the tsunami, which killed nearly 200,000 people in eight countries within a few hours. More than 100,000 people are still missing.
Gasparyan, outgoing USC Student Senate’s community affairs director, answered an invitation by Pepperdine University to join a coalition of Southern California schools working to raise $500,000 for the disaster victims.
Dubbed Sharing Hope, USC’s campaign has so far raised $5,400. The sky-blue bracelets are available for $3 each at the Volunteer Center, located in the Student Union Building at the University Park campus. On each soft-rubber wristband, the word “hope” is inscribed in eight languages.
“I knew that USC as a school had to do something,” said Gasparyan, who is majoring in psychology and business administration. “We want to help people who were affected by the tsunami to return to their normal life.”
The Volunteer Center is working with United Planet, a nonprofit organization based in Boston, to aid victims in Thailand, which reported nearly 11,000 deaths and missing people after the tsunami. In December, USC students will help restore severely affected Ranong in Southern Thailand.
Funds from bracelet sales will go toward the cost of the trip. Each student who participates must also kick-in about $600 to help cover expenses.
Gasparyan has been alerting the campus about the relief effort. But she won’t be joining the crew in Thailand; she will be studying abroad in Hungary.
“I have been on three alternative spring breaks and they really are a life-changing experience," Gasparyan said. "Now, students who couldn't do this during their spring break can do this in winter. This kind of experience really opens your eyes to the world. It's wonderful to give of yourself and help other people."
Gaeke said the timing was right.
“It’s exciting that a year after the tsunami, we will be part of the reconstruction,” Gaeke said. “Students will not only be of service to the families affected, they’ll get to learn about a different culture.”
The program’s theme also moved her.
“We loved the notion of sharing hope,” Gaeke said. “The idea of sharing hope is relevant for the students. I want them to feel the sense of responsibility to do something as well as know that it’s possible to make a difference.”
For information about the Sharing Hope campaign and the Alternative Winter Break program, contact the USC Volunteer Center at (213) 740-7012 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Meaghan Agnew contributed to this report.