Penn State Hazleton students traveled to Montreal during this year’s spring break to serve others facing hunger and food insecurity.

'A life-changing experience'

Nine Penn State Hazleton students traveled to Montreal during this year’s spring break to serve others facing hunger and food insecurity.
Students help people facing hunger and homelessness in Montreal

Heading north – not south – and spending a week in temperatures dipping as low as -18 doesn’t sound like a typical spring break.

And the break was anything but typical for nine Penn State Hazleton students who traveled to Montreal during this year’s spring break to serve others facing hunger and food insecurity. They were joined by their adviser, Coordinator of Student Engagement Robert Knight, and a contingent of students and chaperones from Penn State Mont Alto, traveling as a group of 30 overall.

“Student Engagement provided this opportunity for students to participate in a weeklong service experience focused on food insecurities and sustainability, two salient topics throughout the University. Our students helped the Montreal community by bridging the gap between those in need of fresh, healthy food and available resources. Through their experience, the students were challenged to think globally, act responsibly and reflect deeply,” Knight said.

Those who went on the trip from Penn State Hazleton were Alessandra Banta, Maria Bustos, Mariah Carey, Kierra Foster-Bagley, Trent Harrelson, Cassandra Kelly, Ron Rogers, Sanjana Singh and Zane Yoder.

The students decided to take part in the trip for a variety of reasons.

“Service in general seemed interesting to me. And my major deals with a lot of diversity and I wanted to get firsthand knowledge of doing things with different people in a new country,” said Bustos, a sophomore majoring in criminology and political science.

Banta, a first-year student, said she has done other service projects and was interested to participate in this one. “With a major in psychology, I’ll be working with people and learning how different societies and people are living. It’s good for society to work as a team on projects like these,” she said.

Singh, a first-year student majoring in business marketing, completed a year of service after high school through AmeriCorps. “Through the service sites I worked at, I know what it’s like to know you’ll make a difference. I wanted to see the impact we would make knowing that we’d do that in Canada,” she said.

And for Rogers, a first-year student studying computer engineering, it was a chance to broaden his horizons. “I had never left the country before or experienced other types of cultures. Going to Montreal and experiencing French Canadian culture was something different for me,” he said.

While in Montreal, the students worked at six different service sites, sorting food, preparing food for meals, making lunch, serving lunch and sorting clothing. They also developed a project of their own – purchasing the items necessary to make sandwiches and handing the sandwiches out to people in areas where homelessness is prevalent.

“We knew hunger and homelessness existed, but this created that difference between knowing and doing something,” Bustos said.

Banta said, “The organizations we went to were all very organized and had a vision and goals of how they wanted to help Montreal. We got to be their hands and feet through the work we did.”

Bustos said the program leaders and the recipients were grateful for their help. The experience also taught the Penn State students a few personal lessons.

“In one setting we worked in, we cut off only the bad part of fruits and vegetables so we didn’t have to throw the whole thing away. As college students, we tend to throw a lot of food away,” Bustos said.

Singh added, “It opened our eyes to how we look at things now. Even a damaged package that might get thrown away, we realize somebody wants it.”

They found the majority of people in Montreal did speak English, but their first language and the city’s signs were in French. French Canadian is also a different dialect than the French spoken in France.

In addition to the language barrier, the trip taught them how to overcome a variety of challenges, including bitterly cold weather, navigating the metro system and cooking and cleaning for the large group they traveled with. But most of all, the students said they learned a lot about the value of service and being involved in their communities.

“I live in California and we have a big homeless population in San Diego. I plan to make and hand out sandwiches and pick up trash in my community,” Bustos said.

Banta said, “The whole trip got me thinking about using ideas from different organizations – things we could do by ourselves and also as part of a group.”

Singh said, “It’s a life-changing experience to see how just 30 people can impact so many lives and feed so many people. Sometimes when you go out of the country and to a more impoverished area, you get inspired and have your eyes opened to finding ways you can help.”

Every night, the group gathered to reflect on the day. Each person shared what they had done that day along with how it impacted them and others.

Knight said the reflections were designed to help the students understand how their service was helping the local community in Montreal.

“International service is an integral component to developing tomorrow’s leaders today. Service abroad allows students to participate in organized activities directly benefiting a society different than their own. Through practical experiences and intercultural conversations, our students become better equipped with the necessary skills to be active and engaged global citizens,” he said.