By Lindsey Zemler (Engl’10 )
When I graduated from CU last spring, I enjoyed the idea of being free from the academic world, at least for a while. During my junior and senior year much of my inspiration and encouragement had come outside the classroom in volunteer contexts and I was eager for more. After studying abroad in Israel my junior year I dreamed of spending six months backpacking around Southeast Asia after graduation – taking, in other words, the “big trip” somewhere in the world that many young Israelis do after their army service. For the first time in my life, there was no academic calendar to schedule my adventures around.
My life as an alum began as I intended it to – I spent two weeks in the Dominican Republic doing service work to address issues in rural education, followed by six weeks in Israel volunteering with environmental groups. I was delighted by the open-ended future (and had a reoccurring mental picture of myself trekking around India with a rucksack) but while in Israel I realized I wanted to stay longer. My next step had many similarities to the first two months of freedom, but also integrated me back into an academic community.
In February I will be six months into a yearlong commitment as an intern at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies located on kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel. The institute is a nonprofit organization with an academic program for Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and internationals bringing together environmental and peace studies aimed at improving the political and environmental reality in the Middle East.
“I live a life without frills, work closely with others and am learning to work in a field that I care strongly about.”
I work in the alumni department, serving a network of more than 500 people who shared this experience and want to stay connected to each other and to their goals. I traverse the barriers between several existing communities here. I’m not a student but am integrated into the campus community as if I am. At the same time I’m a staff member at the institute, a teacher’s assistant for a course each semester and I participate in peace building seminars and field trips.
In addition, AIES is located on a kibbutz in the Arava Desert – picture a remote village of about 300 people in a strikingly quiet, natural desert. I transition between overlapping communities constantly. And all of them require intention, consciousness and an appreciation for community needs. I live a life without frills, work closely with others and am learning to work in a field that I care strongly about. Daily I try to connect my goals being here to my experiences of the past few years.
I am near a beautiful place I was at two years ago. I lovingly recall that semester abroad in Jerusalem my junior year during which I spent several weeks volunteering at a wildlife preserve, Hai-Bar Yotvata, that protects and preserves rare desert animals and which is part of the Israel Parks and Nature Authority. It was close to the kibbutz I’m at now. With me were 10 international volunteers and we became a close-knit group, working each day to beautify the visitor’s area by layering hand-mixed mud on the walls to cover the uninviting concrete and create a more natural desert look.
Some volunteers preferred other roles such as “group chef” and others tossed the tools aside and used their hands to crumble the clay as we prepared large batches of mud. I was one who felt that the more mud on my face, the better, and I was in heaven doing physical, hands-on work.
No matter what role an individual preferred in making the group function and finish the work, each person was strong and motivated to be spending their summer volunteering. However, there was a certain conversation sparked early on: how much were we really helping rare desert species survive by putting mud on the walls? It was difficult to see a connection between our efforts and the issue of species preservation.
Furthermore, as individuals we didn’t necessarily feel personally connected to this little section of Israel’s nature and the species that depend on its unique ecology to survive, though I was having the time of my life playing with mud while also having conversations with well-intentioned individuals. When the summer ended, I left Israel cleansed after many mud baths, but feeling I had just skimmed the surface of something important.
Upon returning to Boulder for my senior year at CU, I channeled this feeling by getting involved with campus student groups. Most significant, I became site leader for the CU chapter of Alternative Breaks, a national movement empowering college students to volunteer. My co-leader and I selected a team of 11 CU students and planned and organized a week-long spring break service trip to Catalina Island, Calif., off the coast of Los Angeles, where we would work with the Catalina Island Conservancy addressing environmental restoration and conservation.
“The communities that impacted me so much have provided a framework allowing me deeper access to the communities in which I now belong.”
Like at the wildlife reserve in Israel, I stepped outside my personal community to volunteer. However, this time we spent a semester preparing ourselves to function as a strong group, cultivating leadership skills and educating ourselves about our host organization and environmentalism in general. In addition to preparedness, we also engaged in intentional reflection while on the trip and reorientation to the issues after the trip.
Upon our arrival, our cohesive group had a great time painting the local airport on the high hills of Catalina. Despite the lighthearted atmosphere I felt my wheels turning in response to the work we were asked to do, just as had happened in Israel. I understood why both groups questioned our usefulness in each situation, yet a part of me always felt that my efforts, no matter how small, were making a positive impact.
With this group I felt better equipped to understand our effect on the community that hosted us. Each day of work I could see the individuals in my group going through a process, myself included. There was disillusionment and questioning at first, but a strong desire to connect. At the end of the week we spent two days building a fence that would prevent bison and deer from eating endemic plants that were struggling to re-grow after a devastating wildfire. By the time the week ended we could name many native species on the island, recite the history of the island and felt it was crucial for the California Conservancy to continue its work in protecting this unique eco-system.
We returned to campus clinging to the feeling of connecting to a new place and to each other and at first I felt a deep sense of loss. Yet somehow my feeling of connecting transferred to my feelings about campus. The thousands of people who walked by me felt less anonymous – they felt like potential. My group members, who I felt so close to after being with them for just nine days, had been anonymous just months before.
Suddenly, as a senior who had transferred to CU after two years at California State University at Monterey Bay, a very small school where I knew everyone, I was hanging out in the dorms, meeting my group members in the dining halls for breakfast, attending sorority dance performances and rallying my new friends to meet at a Conference on World Affairs session. I felt that a group of former strangers had somehow become inextricably accountable to one another, and I felt a greater level of access to the entire campus community because of it. I recognized the difference made by our volunteering efforts wasn’t just that we helped a conservation organization for one week (good, but not enough) – the difference was in us, as individuals.
“The strength in the experience and in the group pushed each of us forward on our own paths, and found a new direction.”
Voluntarism has truly shaped me ―I have reassessed the value of community, the importance of getting to know individuals in the communities I involve myself in, the value of hard work, of passion and believing in something and making commitments.
In an ironic twist today I live 10 minutes away from that same animal preserve of my junior year, and I’m at home in a community that has become my own. I admit I’m not overjoyed that part of my job is to be a teacher’s assistant (the classroom, remember, doesn’t have enough mud for me), but there are a million opportunities to engage in the type of community building and hands-on work that I like so much.
My dream of traveling abroad and moving freely from place to place shifted into a dream of traveling abroad and staying in one place for a long period. So I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing. The communities that impacted me so much have provided a framework allowing me deeper access to the communities in which I now belong.
Lindsey Zemler (Engl’10) lives in southern Israel and works at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. She grew up in Boulder and lived and studied in Monterey, Calif. , and Jerusalem before graduating from CU last May. While at CU she worked closely with the Volunteer Resource Center. Looking for a wildlife or social service volunteer opportunity? Lindsey recommends GoEco.