Early September has a “back to school” feel, even for those whose school days are far behind us. We can remember the combination of excitement and anxiety as we began a new chapter of our lives, moving up a grade, shifting schools, and anticipating new people and challenges.

For high school students, especially those in their last two years, anxiety can dominate this season. They’ll be choosing course work, sports commitments, and extracurriculars, many with at least a bit of preoccupation about how it will all look on their college applications. They know the competition is fierce, especially for the more elite institutions. The pressure to make themselves stand out can be intense.

This competition sometimes leads teens to seek out service learning opportunities –- but when the motive is an application over the substantive experience or personal growth, there will likely be little true service or real learning involved. As Frank Bruni wrote in a recent New York Times editorial, this kind of travel “turns developing-world hardship into a prose-ready opportunity for growth, empathy into an extracurricular activity.”

Grow Racial Justice
Participants in Grow Racial Justice came together for five-days at the Center for Ethical Living & Social Justice Renewal in New Orleans. A collaborative effort of UUCSJ, the Thrive Program for Young Adults of Color, and Standing on the Side of Love, this gathering equipped young adults (18-34) with skills, tools, a sense of community, and the opportunity for spiritual practice and reflection to deepen their commitment to racial justice activism.

The UU College of Social Justice views our service learning journeys through a different lens. We believe that the best “service” we can ever give to other, in particular oppressed, communities is our commitment to the long work of justice in our own home communities. A short-term immersion is often a truly transforming experience, especially for young people just beginning to explore the world around them. It can be well worth the journey, but only when it brings us into genuine relationship with our host community, prepared to hear sometimes uncomfortable truths.

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Activate Boston: Climate Justice participants learned about grassroots organizing to oppose the spread of fossil fuel infrastructure and joined a People Over Pipelines march.

Immersion trips help us understand our place in the tangled matrix of privilege and power, and so engage in more sustained and effective efforts for change.

Stepping out of our comfort zones can help us understand the deep interconnections between oppressed communities (whether in the developing world or here in the U.S.) and our own experiences. Immersion trips help us understand our place in the tangled matrix of privilege and power, and so engage in more sustained and effective efforts for change. The College of Social Justice is committed to offering these transformative kinds of service learning journeys because they put everything else into a new perspective, and wake us up to all of the ways we can make a difference. And a extra bonus for high school students—these impacts last much longer than their stress about writing the perfect college application essay!

Visit UUCSJ’s website to learn more about how to sign up for a short-term immersion or volunteer trip.