“If you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.”~
-Pocahontas, from Walt Disney’s feature film Pocahontas
During finals week of the Spring 2012 semester at University of Tampa, I received an e-mail from a mentor I had from the freshman leadership retreat, Courtney Tipton. She was an alum of Interfaith Youth Core’s (IFYC) programming (IFYC.org) and asked if I would meet with the Dean of Wellness to talk about going to the Interfaith Leadership Institute (ILI) in Chicago in June of 2012. I jumped at the opportunity to go – travel, meeting new people, AND talking interfaith framework and dialogue – why would I want to go? I thought I was going to burst with excitement!
For three days I was immersed in a group of students from all around the country who had various ideologies, and levels of interfaith activism. In three days my cohort (named “Gandhi”) changed my life forever. Despite all of us being from different walks of life, it was learning how to connect in our humanity that allowed us to come together on community needs. Seeing my fellow activists’ passion, compassion, and desire for a more unified world drove me to really think about what I was going to do when I got back to Florida.
Fast-forward three years and while transferring to a new school – University of North Florida (UNF), I immediately wanted to find out if my new university had a Better Together campaign. Low and behold The University of North Florida not only has a VERY active campaign – thanks to IFYC Alum Hana Ashchi – it has its own Interfaith Center, which is a rare find at a state school! I also wanted to get involved more with organizations that would help me build skills within my public health degree. That is when I found AmeriCorps…again (I originally heard about AmeriCorps while in Mississippi on one of the relief trips I previously served, and then again when I was interning at Y.M.C.A in their Healthy Living department for diabetes prevention).
As an AmeriCorps volunteer, I was able to work with students with developmental and intellectual disabilities by providing them with health education. From nutrition, to fitness, stress management, sun safety, and anything else the students wanted to know regarding wellness, I was their teacher. My experience with interfaith work truly helped me become a better volunteer and teacher. Patience (with yourself and others), listening, and checking presumption(s) at the door are all skills that you need to be involved with interfaith activism. Being able to work with a diverse group of people who have been advocating for equality and show continual perseverance always amazes me. As I come to the end of my AmeriCorps service – 100 hours away – I have been transformed by these students in more ways than one. These students have taught me more about fortitude, courage, and strength than I ever could have imagined. They always have the greatest attitudes and they never settle for the status quo of – “oh well we will just accommodate your needs,” “Oh, you don’t have to take the exam if you don’t want to,” etc. They always rise to the occasion. One of my students is in a wheel chair and recently completed a Spartan Race; a race that is 8 miles total and filled with obstacles – yet he completed that with the help of his Best Buddy and me planning his fitness and diet routines and making sure that he was going to be in tip-top shape to compete and attain his goal. On April 17th, 2014, he became a Spartan!
There is a saying from AmeriCorps that hangs on my cubicle which says, “When faced with adversity, I will seek common ground.” That is how I knew I was going to bridge all of my loves together: service, interfaith, and health education – all under one roof.
One of the components of my service site is to help the students engage with the overall student body of UNF. Naturally I pulled from the UNF Interfaith Center. After all, how much more inclusion can you get than the Interfaith Center?
When Interfaith Week came to UNF, I encouraged my students to attend some of the events such as Wear a Turban Day, Interfaith Friendzy (a student led interfaith fair event), and the Student Identity Panel, among other events. I pushed for the Student Identity Panel in particular because these were the voices of the student body of UNF. 10 students of diverse religious/non-religious identities, sexual identities, racial, ethnic, and gender identities sat on a panel to share their stories about engaging with difference. It was a picture of how we are all different, yet we all call UNF home for social and academic purposes.
Many of my students came back to me echoing thoughts of inclusion, community, and respect. One student even went on to say, “There are so many different people! Everyone was so nice to me even though I look and speak differently! I have never been treated as an equal before!” This particular student has overcome a lot since I have started my service. He has even taught me some American Sign Language. Although interfaith activism is about education and seeking out common ground, it is also a place of acceptance and respect for being different. It is a place where you are allowed to be who you are, nothing more, nothing less. What we do matters, even when it isn’t about just interfaith literacy.
(Me Speaking at UNF’s 2014 Relay for Life)
Through my involvement with UNF’s Interfaith Center, Better Together campaign, and AmeriCorps, I have also become a stronger person and more ready to face my fears. When I was at ILI back in 2012 I was terrified of public speaking; I would almost go on to say I down right hated it. Now, two years later I have spoken in front of a few congregations about medical mission trips, conferences for the Downs Syndrome association, speaking at my university’s for Relay for Life, and my personal favorites – the Interfaith Center’s student panel for Middle Eastern dignitaries.
It was through IFYC, the UNF Interfaith Center and AmeriCorps that I realized that wherever I go, what ever I do, I want to work in an environment that has diversity and which fosters community service while advocating for the common good whatever -that may be at the time. When I serve, my heart and soul are left overflowing in accomplishment and excitement to see what will happen next in the community. Looking back over the last three years, little did I know that my love for community service was only at the beginning stages. Being a part of the IFYC and Better Together family has lead me to so many opportunities, and for that I will always be grateful.