In March 2006, months after Hurricane Katrina, I went to New Orleans to volunteer for the first time. We were gutting houses, which was grueling and nasty work. After racing to the showers and the service laundry at the volunteer camp, we had some precious downtime before dinner. More often than not, I’d wander over to the Chalmette Battlefield, site of the Battle of New Orleans, and the adjacent Chalmette National Battlefield. There, on a decrepit bench under the live oaks, I’d read or muse in the company of the dead African-American soldiers from the Civil War dead, buried in the cemetery behind me. There, surrounded by so many stories, is where the idea for the New Orleans course first emerged.
When I got back to New Hampshire, I started reading everything I could find on New Orleans while piecing together a proposal for a first year seminar on the City. It was approved and in January 2007 I began teaching the New Orleans class for the first time. I had a full class of 25 and I proceeded to inflict my newfound knowledge on them with text-heavy PowerPoint slides. I tried to communicate all that knew and they tried their best to sort through it all. It was a learning process for all.
I returned to New Orleans that year and seven members of the class went to the Gulf Coast with UNH-Alternative Break Challenge, for which I had arranged volunteers slots with Habitat for Humanity, UNH Intervarsity, or on their own. We had a blast taking in the sights and sounds of New Orleans while working in and around Musicians’ Village in the Upper Ninth Ward. As I watched my students on the trip, I realized that they were able to link the classroom with experience, and in the process, their learning was much different than for those students who remained behind. When the Honors Program approached me to teach it as an honors course in 2008, I asked if I could require all of the students to go on the service learning trip. They* said “yes” and you can guess the rest of the story.
So here we are, the day before the beginning of the ninth installment of the New Orleans class. Katrina has become more distant, the PowerPoint slides have grown lighter, and the service learning trip still has the power to be a life altering experience. Along the way, while centered around New Orleans, we’ve experienced the Crescent City, the West Bank, St. Bernard Parish, St. Tammany Parish, and Waveland, Mississippi. 200 students and student trip leaders, almost all former students in the class, have danced in second lines, listened to everything from traditional jazz to zydeco to sissy bounce, walked with Mardi Gras Indians, finagled “throws” in numerous parades (no flesh has exposed in the process, but there was some smooching with old Irish and Italian guys), and consumed hundreds of po boys.
And in less than two months, we’re going to do it all over again. For the second year, we’ll be staying at Camp Hope in Arabi, Louisiana. And for the third time, we’ll be working with the wonderful folks at lowernine.org in the Lower Ninth Ward. We’ll experience the Downtown St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Mardi Gras Indians on St. Joseph’s Night, some Afro-Creole cooking, alumnus Kyle Murphy’s French Quarter Scavenger Hunt and, weather permitting, the massing of the Mardi Gras Indian gangs on “Super Sunday.” And more importantly, we’ll work on homes in the still distressed Lower Ninth Ward and, in the process, meet some of the nicest and most open people in the world. In other words, the class will come alive. Within days of taking their mid-term exam, students will have hands-on experience with what they have learned.
And I can’t wait.
*The “they” was really Professor Lisa MacFarlane, then Head of the Honors Program, now Vice President for Academic Affairs/Provost at UNH. I am forever indebted to her trust, foresight, and ability to say “yes” so quickly. The result has been a singular and sometimes life-changing course at UNH. It never gets old for me and, I hope, the same goes for the students.