This summer, 18 Northwestern students served through the Summer of Service program, both domestically and abroad.
Through their times away from home, these students witnessed different cultures, underwent extreme culture shock, had humbling experiences and felt moments that drew them closer to God.
Students served in numerous places, including places as far away as Ghana and India and sites as close as Denver, Colo. The positions and organizations in which these NW students served varied widely.
Junior Jennifer Kahanic worked with an organization called Word for the World in India. She traveled with a team around southern India, helping with missions outreach (including preaching, Bible studies and children’s camps) to lepers, widows, the disabled and generally those “lost and forgotten” in India.
Senior Kelsey Leonard served with Every Child Missionaries in Accra, Ghana. She worked in a children’s house where she handled programming, tutored young adults and taught religion and social studies.
Closer to home, senior Jennifer Carlson served with Dry Bones in Denver, Colo., through the Denver Urban Semester. Dry Bones is a relational ministry and, as such, Jennifer’s role was building relationships with street kids, aged between 12 and mid-20s.
Junior Jacob VanDerLinden served in Ukraine with International Messengers. Their organization teaches English as an outreach opportunity, and Jacob’s role was to be a native English speaker with whom students could practice their English skills.
Although all the SOS members felt their experiences were filled with challenges, the universal theme for the international SOSers was cultural differences and challenges of being in a different environment and culture.
Both Leonard and Kahanic found major differences between U.S. culture and the cultures they lived in. Both of their cultures were very generous, even when they didn’t have much.
Leonard recalls being woken up at around 6 a.m. by a knock on her door. Some of the children who came to the home for education were at her door offering her some of their biscuits, even though she insisted that she had enough to eat.
She felt that Americans tend to keep their best possessions to themselves. Ghanaian culture, on the other hand, leads people to share these good things more generously.
VanDerLinden found that while he didn’t have a lot of culture shock in Ukraine, he did have a lot of big city shock. Having grown up in a small town, he had never lived in a big city. Adjusting to Odessa, Ukraine, a city of 1.3 million people, was challenging.
Although the most jarring experience was the clash between his rural upbringing and the big city environment, VanDerLinden did recall one large difference in the culture.
“We were told that if you wanted to have your own water, leave the water bottle in your room,” VanDerLinden said. “Otherwise, many would treat it simply as communal water that they could take a drink out of.”
Carlson found that serving in the U.S. meant that she didn’t experience most of the culture shock her fellow SOSers felt. She did not need to spend time adjusting to a different culture, which gave her more time to focus on building relationships and working with the ministry.
Kahanic distinctly remembers the huge levels of poverty and how difficult this made it for her to effectively do her work. Kahanic described the slums as “just like out of a magazine” in terms of their extreme levels of poverty.
Kahanic also recalls the differences in diet. She related that most of the food that they eat in India has little or no nutritional value. Typically they only eat fried bread, rice and similar foods, which was something that she had difficulty adjusting to.
Despite all these challenges, Kahanic, Leonard, VanDerLinden and Carlson said they would all do it again, without reservation. They further reaffirmed the value of the challenges they faced, stating that they found them to be growing experiences. All four shared about their experiences at the SOS chapel on Oct. 11.
In addition, they all had advice for those considering SOSes of their own and encouraged them to talk with previous participants if interested.
All of them encourage students to look into the program. Both Carlson and Leonard find the SOS program unique. NW offers an opportunity to be part of a structured program which is nearly impossible to find outside of college.
However, both Kahanic and VanDerLinden urge students to make sure that they don’t go on an SOS simply because others are pushing them to do it. Both did not foresee that they would go on an SOS when they started school, and VanDerLinden was not particularly interested in the program when he first started the process.
Both felt led to go on these trips out of their own heart and prompting from God, and both encourage students to make sure that their reasoning for this trip is similarly motivated.