Beyond Self

When Leeds Met Naz

Service exchange trip to U.K. transforms students’ understanding of culture

by Joanie Eppinga

Clotted cream and scones. Stiff upper lips. Umbrellas in the rain. Monty Python and the royal family. These are images evoked in American minds by the thought of England.

But if you mention that country to Nazareth students involved in The Leeds Metropolitan University/Nazareth International Service Exchange, the resulting images are far more diverse. They include elders of Caribbean descent telling stories, children of refugees feeling their way toward higher education, and people going sailing while in wheelchairs.

The exchange, started in 2012, gives Nazareth students a chance to go to Leeds, England, for two weeks to offer community services. Adam Lewandowski, associate director of the Center for Civic Engagement, says the brainstorming started when colleagues from Leeds Metropolitan University visited Nazareth and wanted to form a partnership between the institutions to promote student exchanges between the two communities. “Everyone agreed that one of the great mechanisms for cultural exchange was service activities,” Lewandowski says. And thus the exchange program, nicknamed “When Leeds Met Naz,” was born.

“It’s a true exchange,” Lewandowski notes. “The first summer Leeds sent students here who provided service through the Community Place of Greater Rochester, and in the summer of 2012 and again in 2014, Nazareth students went to Leeds to serve in turn.”

That service was deeply appreciated in Chapeltown, a section of Leeds populated by descendants of immigrants from the West Indies. Their parents went through “a lot of adversity, discrimination, oppression,” says Timothy Kneeland, Ph.D., professor of history and director of the Center for Public History, who led the trip. “It’s similar to Rochester’s civil rights experience. And the Chapeltown folk are frustrated because their history has been ignored by the academic community.” Nazareth students help to revitalize that distinct and vibrant record through interviews, photojournalism, and contributions to publications and the Leeds West Indian Centre’s website.

Kneeland says that the Centre is a keystone of the program. He describes the colorful Carnival the Chapeltown residents put on annually—the biggest such event in Europe, with costumes, dancing, food, and music. “Our students helped repair costumes and learned from the elders,” he says. “They wore the headdresses and costumes beforehand to promote the carnival. To participate in such a cherished tradition is a once-in-a-lifetime thing—and affirming for the residents, who are delighted to welcome young American scholars interested in their culture.”

Nazareth students are also warmly received in the next component of the program, in which they partner with Leeds Metropolitan University on the Get Ahead program, designed to increase the presence of underserved student populations at the university. “Many of the British students are first generation, and may be of African or Southeast Asian descent,” says Kneeland. It’s the Nazareth students’ job to act as ambassadors, teaching study skills and offering career and college prep; in addition, they help the students relax in a new and potentially intimidating environment. Nazareth student Nicole Andolina ’15 says, “I was happy to answer the students’ many questions, and became quite close with my group in just four days.”

Nazareth students interact not only with British university hopefuls, but also with their British peers, which is enlightening for them. “Talking with British university students is eye-opening—that’s the global, cultural aspect,” says Kneeland. He notes that although U.S. and U.K. cultures have many similarities, enough differences emerge that “our students begin to be more sensitive. They become aware that they are both global citizens and Americans.” High school students in America often take going on to college for granted, whereas their British counterparts often attend vocational programs instead. Victoria Lucido ’15 says, “We can already see a difference in the organizational styles of American and British university systems and have come to appreciate the Naz way!”

Differences between the two countries are further highlighted in the third portion of the program, in which Nazareth students help out at Hollybank Trust, a residential program for children and adults with severe developmental disabilities. For one thing, the technology in the U.K. is more advanced. Hollybank residents have computer programs that allow them to create art and music with the flick of an eye—the only movement some have.

A second difference is that a greater effort is made to incorporate people with disabilities into everyday life. For people who are medically fragile, having the chance to, for example, go sailing—another project the Nazareth students helped with—brings great joy. “It was phenomenal to see the smiles on the faces of the Hollybank residents,” says Lucido. “Even though they couldn’t tell you how much fun they were having, they could still show you.” Kneeland notes that Hollybank experiences allow Nazareth students to understand that “you engage human beings wherever they are. They all have abilities. How can we get them to achieve?” Lewandowski says that in the U.K., therapists working with disabled people “create opportunities to maximize their abilities. Our School of Health and Human Services students seeing this model could revolutionize this kind of care in the U.S.”

That’s just one of the long-term benefits of the exchange program. The learning applies to the students’ academic pursuits as well. Because Nazareth is small and flexible, the experience can be tailored to students’ academic interests. Additionally, students are asked to apply a theory they’ve studied to the experience and explain how it was validated or refuted.

Some students took the academic connection still further: They asked Kneeland to supervise an independent study on a comparison of treatment of disabilities in the U.S. and the U.K., and then created a poster to present at the National Council for Public History conference in Ottawa, Canada, where they were the only undergraduates presenting. “The trip made a light bulb go off in their heads,” Kneeland says. “I was really proud of them, to see them as professionals participating with others on a global stage.

“It really is transformative,” he notes. “Our students go from an abstract understanding of other cultures to a concrete one. And they see themselves as part of something bigger.” Andolina admitted that she hadn’t had much experience with volunteering with disabled people before going on the trip. “Now,” she says, “I’m more comfortable working with others. I’m not afraid to explore other service opportunities.”

Just as significant, there’s the new understanding of a different culture. The word “England” now conjures a much more textured picture for Nazareth students. As participant Lauren Simonsen ’16 says, “It was great to experience what it would be like to be a British teenager, and I think that through all the activities, I understand their way of life a little better.”

Joanie Eppinga is a freelance writer and editor in Spokane, Washington.