Students volunteer in the nation’s capital

As part of Civic House’s Alternative Winter Break, 10 students lived at a service-learning hostel and worked with the community lending a hand with service organizations.

Ten students around a table all looking and smiling at the camera. The table has bowls of food and cups and is next to a kitchen.
Ten Penn students went on a Civic House service-learning trip to volunteer in Washington, D.C., during Winter Break. Responsible for all their meals, they took turns making dinner. 

Ten Penn students spent a week of Winter Break at a service-learning hostel in the heart of Washington, D.C, volunteering and learning about pressing challenges involving hunger, homelessness, and poverty. Along the way, they also learned about each other. 

The students were strangers when they got on the bus for the Civic House trip, but they returned Jan. 14 a close group of friends, having shared experiences and histories. 

Three students wearing hairnet and aprons and gloves in a kitchen.
Penn students packing meals at DC Central Kitchen, from left, Vivian Dai, Brittany Bing, and Fridah Aloo. 

“Working with community organizations, we went together through this process of having to collaborate and learn how to navigate the new spaces and challenges we discovered,” says trip co-leader Alexandru Zanca, a sophomore studying economics and statistics in The Wharton School. “And now, with the trip over, we have a really strong group we can come back to whenever we need support.”

The students worked with coordinators at the Pilgrimage, a service-learning hostel in D.C., and checked in throughout the week with Civic House’s Elizabeth Cannon, senior associate director. 

“Civic House hopes to provide educational opportunities for students to explore their identity and ways to engage in various communities in a responsible and ethical way,” Cannon says. “By integrating education, reflection, and direct service, we hope to foster an ongoing commitment to social change.”

Three students standing in warehouse filled with home items, one carrying a blanket and the other a child's car seat.
At the organization A Wider Circle, students, from left, Bela Salas-Betsch, Geena Jung, and Fridah Aloo help sort furniture and other household items. 

The Penn Alternative Breaks (PAB) program aims to create meaningful community engagement opportunities for students by cultivating long-term community partnerships and facilitating social-justice learning, she says. 

Civic House organized two trips for Winter Break this year, the other to Baltimore to volunteer with the nonprofit Reading Partners to support literacy education. Three trips are planned for spring break in March. The cost per student for each trip is about $400, but scholarships are made available. Civic House has been sponsoring service trips during breaks since 1990.

While in D.C., the students helped with preparing meals for the homeless at the DC Central Kitchen, and served breakfast and distributed supplies at Charlie’s Place and Thrive DC. They went out into neighborhoods with the National Coalition for the Homeless to see the impact of gentrification and displacement. They sorted appliances and furniture at A Wider Circle.

Four students with hairnets and aprons and gloves peeling apples in a kitchen.
Penn students preparing food at the DC Central Kitchen, from left, Bela Salas-Betsch, Alexandru Zanca, Kaitlyn Rentala, and Francesca Ciampa.

“We know that we are not going there to save the world or save anyone,” says trip co-leader Sonia Radu, a junior majoring in biological basis of behavior in the School of Arts and Sciences. “At the end of the day we were there to learn, to engage with people, and to listen to their stories.”

Each day the students had workshops with agency leaders, to have a chance to discuss what they had done and seen. And at night they had long discussions, “reflections,” with each other about their experiences.

After recapping the day, a couple of the students would do “life mapping,” telling the story of their lives to the group. “It can get deep and emotional, but it is honestly one of the most inspiring things that happens that week,” says Radu, who wants to pursue a career in medicine. “You don’t often tell your life story in such an intimate environment. You learn about others, but you also learn a lot about yourself.”

Surprisingly, the two trip leaders are both from Romania, near Bucharest—Zanca from Ploiesti and Radu from Pitești. Radu’s family now lives in Plainville, Mass., outside of Boston.

Two students looking at the camera, smiling and laughing.
The two leaders of the Civic House trip to Washington, D.C., were sophomore Alexandru Zanca (left) and junior Sonia Radu, who are both, coincidentally, from Romania. 

“It is not something common in Romania for students to get involved with something like this,” says Zanca. He became part of Civic House as a freshman and went on the trip to Nashville last year. Radu, a transfer student, was involved in service organizations at Boston College and sought out Civic House when she arrived on campus in the fall. 

“I like the concept of civic engagement and it’s not something I used to do before coming to college,” Zanca says. “I have learned a lot about the U.S. and what life here can be like outside of what I experience on campus.”

The students slept in bunk beds in one room at Pilgrimage and were responsible for all their meals. They took turns cooking each night, often recipes from home. Zanca made a traditional Romanian pea stew, with Radu’s assistance. “The group dynamic is a very important part of the service trip,” Radu says. 

At the final reflection they talked about building community, with those they met in D.C., but also together. They have pledged to continue community engagement in Philadelphia. 

“Through PAB, we are trying to create spaces for everyone to feel welcome and make friends and connections,” Zanca says. “I think that was the ultimate goal of the trip.”

Ten students standing in front of the steps of the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
The 10 students who went on the Ciivic House trip to Washington, D.C., pictured at the U.S. Supreme Court building. Back, from left, Kaitlyn Rentala, Alexandru Zanca, Fridah Aloo, Zoeb Mohammedshah. Front, from left, Geena Jung, Francesca Ciampa, Brittany Bing, Vivian Dai, Sonia Radu, Bela Salas-Betsch.