The Immersion Program at Rollins College is rooted in community engagement and leadership, seeking to broaden students’ understanding of the world through exposure to new environments and hands-on learning experiences.
“Ninety to ninety-five percent of immersion participants either agree or strongly agree that immersion experiences have an impact on them—to say it is powerful would be an understatement,” said Meredith Hein, director of the Center for Leadership and Community Engagement (CLCE) at Rollins College. “I truly believe it’s a life-changing experience for our students.”
The Immersion Program exists to offer student-led alternative break trips throughout Florida and other areas of the country. These trips, referred to as immersions, may last for a weekend or for a whole week, and are led by two student facilitators and one staff or faculty member. Each experience generally has between ten and twenty participants and focuses on a social impact area such as hunger, homelessness, the environment, or disaster relief, among many others. Immersion facilitators emphasize experiential learning and reflection on these trips, encouraging participants to consider how the issues they’re learning about affect their everyday lives.
The Immersion Program has been a part of Rollins since 2007, though it has experienced its most significant growth within the past three years. Meredith credits much of the Immersion Program’s recent success to the generous giving of the Miller Foundation.
“I don’t know that the Immersion Program would even exist [without funding from the Miller Foundation],” she said. “The Immersion Program is such a significant part of our work at Rollins. When you have a donor that supports something that is at the core of your mission, you can take a deep sigh of relief—you can sleep at night.”
Demand for immersion experiences has soared at Rollins in the last few years, to the point that CLCE has begun offering weekend experiences as well as week-long experiences. Each school year, more than 300 students, faculty, and staff members participate in twenty to twenty-five immersion experiences. As a result, Rollins has been ranked No. 1 for the highest percentage of students who participate in alternative break trips for three years in a row by Break Away, a national nonprofit organization that promotes quality alternative breaks.
Raul Carril (’15), a Rollins alumni and current graduate assistant with CLCE, remembers how the number of immersion applicants almost doubled in 2013-2014, the year he served as the student coordinator for the program. Raul believes that strengthening the Immersion Program brand—known as “Immersion Blue”—sparked new interest in the program that year by giving students something to gravitate toward visually.
“What are these immersion things?” students would ask when they saw their friends wearing their Immersion Blue T-shirts or painting their fingernails blue in anticipation of the reveal of new immersion destinations.
“I famously say that Immersion Blue is my favorite color,” Raul said. “[The brand] represents what has come out in Rollins through this program. It has created that culture and that atmosphere and something that resonates with our community. It is not just something within Student Affairs—it’s a larger initiative now within the Rollins campus community.”
A Place to Belong
During his first year at Rollins, Raul participated in four immersions. The next year, he became a trip facilitator, and then the following year he served as the student coordinator of the Immersion Program. But those things may never have happened if it weren’t for one timely email received just after he came to Rollins.
“Not doing anything for fall break?” it read. “Come join us for a ‘Hot and Sweaty in the Swamp’ immersion experience.”
With no other plans in place, Raul decided to join the group in the Everglades—something he now says was one of the best decisions he ever made. The other participants on the trip became some of his closest friends at Rollins. One of the facilitators introduced him to the fraternity he eventually joined, and another facilitator would later co-lead an immersion experience to West Virginia with him.
“It’s been kind of a whirlwind, thinking about that one crazy email I opened and how that influenced and impacted my five years at Rollins,” he said. “I’m really grateful and really humbled by what the program and that opportunity have done for me.”
Meredith Hein says that Raul’s experience is not unusual—immersions serve as the gateway for many students to find their place on campus.
“We have experiences just for first-year students, and they go and find ‘their people,’” she said. “[Students] come to Rollins from all across the world. . . . They may be the only person they know coming to our institution. Some students find their niche through the social setting, but many find their place by doing this type of work.”
A Broader Worldview
For many other students, immersions open their eyes to the wider world outside of Rollins, and they return with new realizations and questions about social impact areas.
“Everything in that experience is built around thinking through how it’s meeting major learning outcomes,” Meredith said. “We use this term ‘unlearning.’ Up until students enter college, the foundation of where they’ve gained their knowledge and skills comes from their experiences or what someone else has told them. These immersions truly change the way our students think.”
This was the case for the program’s 2015-2016 student coordinator, Courtney Durbin (’16).
“I went on an immersion, and it really changed my perspective of how I was in this Rollins bubble,” Courtney said. “The Orlando area has a high level of homelessness, so to learn that and to know that there are people just down the street who are homeless and struggling to feed their children, it made me realize serving and helping others is a passion of mine.”
Courtney remembers her first immersion experience to St. Petersburg, Florida, vividly.
“There was one girl who was seventeen, younger than me, and she was homeless. It hit me in that moment—it can happen to anyone,” Courtney said. “I think there’s this stigma that homeless people aren’t people, like they aren’t human. Talking to her was an ‘ah-ha moment’ for me. [I realized,] ‘Wow, there are all these scary things we think about these people, but there are stories behind them.’ It just put the truth in perspective.”
Those ah-ha moments are something every immersion facilitator aims to help their participants realize, and encouraging thoughtful reflection is one of the key components to these trips.
“Reflection is like the connection dots that make those light bulb moments of, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve never thought about this before.’ Our students ask these big questions, and they’re being challenged,” Meredith said.
Life-Long Lessons of Gratitude
Meredith has been involved with community engagement since 2006 when she joined Rollins as a graduate assistant. In the time since, she has developed several sayings she often quotes to her students, such as “Service is messy and unpredictable,” or “Leadership is messy and unpredictable.” Another idea she often expresses is: “Every person we meet in life, every story that we hear, and every place we go makes us a part of who we are.”
“So many of us forget this idea and the importance of gratitude,” she explained. “Or we have [bad things happen] in our lives and think to ourselves, ‘I want to just get back to who I was before.’ But all of those negative experiences are setting us up to become the next, best version of ourselves.”
For Meredith, this truth hit home during her first immersion experience. It was January 2007, and she had gone with a group of Rollins students to New Orleans to continue with rebuilding the city after Hurricane Katrina. By the third day, she was covered in insulation and fiberglass and decided she had to take a shower, despite the Arctic temperatures of the water. After the fastest shower of her life, she sat on a porch outside talking with the other trip participants. The conversation started with a few complaints of being tired and cold but then evolved into an organic discussion about life.
“After about forty-five minutes of us shooting the breeze, this student shared with us—kind of out of nowhere—that for a year during middle school, when his parents had gotten a divorce, he and his dad lived out of their car and he was homeless,” Meredith said. “He didn’t know where his next meal was coming from, and he changed schools three or four times.”
However, this student was one of the happiest people she had ever met, Meredith explained. None of the group would have guessed his past, and for him to share that piece of himself brought her own small discomforts into perspective.
“That student reminded me of that idea of gratitude,” she said. “We’re not here to do something to make ourselves feel good. We’re here to support a community that is not getting the support they need from other places. That memory will always stick with me.”
These are the types of experiences that Meredith believes are priceless for students. She will never forget that conversation on the porch, nor will she forget the sense of community she felt when she reconnected with a New Orleans woman whose home she had worked on the year before. Raul will never forget gaining an understanding of the socioeconomic impact of coal mining on the West Virginian woman whose home he helped repair. Courtney remembers being brought to tears by the enthusiastic gratitude of a homeless man in Washington D.C. when she handed him a tray of food.
The long-lasting impact of these moments is part of the overall value of immersions, Raul believes.
“These impact areas, these experiences, can build on each other,” he said. “They take what you’re learning in the classroom and give you some skills and cultural world perception of what’s happening, and you can use that to advance your career as well. That’s why I like calling them experiences not trips, because a trip you just start and end, but an experience is something deeper. It latches onto you, and you can build on that.”